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Short Story
4,446 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

To Athens from Third Base

by Tom Sheehan

When a Bates College shortstop was drafted by the great Yankees in a Bates’ season cut by rain to fourteen games, some scouts laughed, some re-established their priorities, some spent their revenge in a drunken spree.

The shortstop’s name was Davin Croughmartin, suddenly tall, always fleet, eagle-eyed, soft at the hands but oak tough at the knees; his range greater than Rizzuto’s claim, his grace not seen since Marty Marion, his quickness like a young Campaneris, but what brought him under Yankee eyes was an internal fire they long had sought, that old spirit Billy Martin had loosed, the October flames Reggie took away with him.

Davin’s picture flashed in the papers, spread itself the whole length of the East Coast, came up on Time, and Sports Illustrated; he seemed to be the inestimable question mark, an equation’s unknown sum, but looking on that square and solid face, on the blue eyes deep as a scabbard sword, on the chin carved from a piece of the Rock itself, they dreamed past dreams, future dreams, the silence of Yankee dreams...late, losing, Babe Ruth coming to bat.

Davin Croughmartin got his sheepskin and set out for the great Big Apple, coming away from the backstops of Maine, down the rural road, down the pined path, past the irresolute cows, the neatly stacked wood piles, roadside acres black from fire, sawdust piles, gray Connecticut cabins on the rocks, tired gray boats, somber gray trawlers and scows, that whole gray fastening one finds in life, now and then a lobsterman clad yellow as the sun against the sky.

He had his breakfast in a slow, gray town, felt time to be an after-dinner drink, dreamed of base hits and great double play balls, how the voice of sixty thousand people rushed upon the ears like the wind itself, or the very Tidal Bore, how it roared into the strength of his hands, how he felt it like nerve ends in his arms and all the tight covering of his skin. In the east, over the mask of the sea, westerly in its yearning, came the sun.

: 2 :

Out of Millinocket, driven by dreams, paralleling Davin Croughmartin’s road, mourned by mother and rousted by father, wearing the scar of a Down East village, came somebody the Yankees never knew; Claude Martin, cheat, faster than all the Gods, entrepreneur, pretender to the thrones, scavenger, village crow, rumor monger, bad apple, misunderstood, but could pass as the brother of Maine’s new celebrity.

Sometimes we can’t see where images cross, what influences strike the moving root, how bodies pass each other in the night, how shadows never entwined are never lost are never one without the other; how Karma, separated, finds folly bringing the ends of things all together, how Martin and Croughmartin, thus described, could bring themselves under one final inescapable masquerading.

Davin’s eyes picked out the figure on the road, thumbing beneath the white umbrella of a tall bleached-out pine tree, his thumb out in the gesture of the free-roading soul. “Well,” said Croughmartin, “I’m heading your way. Stash your gear in the back. Where you bound?” He thought he could have been looking in a mirror. If he had had a brother, this would be him looking back at him, except for the darkness lodged in the eyes. “I’m getting out. I’m heading to Norway.”

It is only the eyes which separate some men. It is only the eyes that tell which well they were drawn from, and if from the same well, how deep the ladle went.

“Norway’s a hell of a place to pick on after you’ve spent a winter in Maine.” Martin looked back at him. The darkness in his eyes seemed to fade, his cheeks flushing with a sudden warmth. “I’ll log a bit, kitty up, then deal some. There’s got to be someone smoking stuff there. “I heard all the trees in Norway are gone.” “You got to be a smart-ass college kid. You’ve got the score on everything around. Norway’s part of my imagination.”

“Naw,” warmed up Croughmartin. “I’m pretty dumb, but I’ve been picked up by the New York Yankees.” “Jeez, I heard all about you at the club. Great glove man, swing a stick full of thunder, run like a damn deer through the apple trees. If someone asked me, we could pass for brothers.” “My name is Davin Croughmartin, and yours?” “Claude Martin’s this look-a-like, Norway bound, part French, part Irish, part passing salesman. And I bet I can beat you in a hundred yards any time we try.”

Down the coast of Maine they raced, between rocks, trees hanging like scars out of green forests, between road signs and mile markers and antique stands. Claude Martin won by a step every time and wore his winning well. “I’m a track man who runs more from fear than any training. I’ve been chased all over Millinocket by store owners, loggers, and midnight cops who did not like my peeking on their fun. Jim Fix never had anything on me.”

They raced again and again beneath pines, between glacier-thrown monumental rocks, between the suggestions of humps and hills that splayed out in the green landscaping, down flat terraces like bowling alleys had been carved into the heart of the earth, down the gray sands ceaselessly pounded on by those veteran waves the Atlantic wears, harsh and cold and inimitably cruel. Claude Martin never lost a single race.

: 3 :

And in the darkest corners of his mind, in those dim retreats where mischief is born, Claude Martin found his latest escapade, the ultimate trick of his derring-do, a caper worthy of Millinocket’s Master Caper, bright star, headline maker, dreamer of the far shore, night’s dark chieftain, planner of the unbelievable deed. His mouth watered at the singular thought, at fulfillment of a grandiose ploy.

He said to Davin, at ease at the wheel, “I’ll go just as far as Connecticut. There’s a beautiful blonde cousin of mine who has an apartment in Weathersfield. Just drop me at her door and go your way down to that village the Yankees own.” Davin asked, his eyes staring straight ahead, “How beautiful is a beautiful blonde?” “She’s the most beautiful girl of them all. If she weren’t my cousin, I’d move right in.”

And the seed was planted deep in Davin. It began to grow in his mind; he squirmed in his seat, saw visions on the windshield of a girl he might never see. Through a short stretch of New Hampshire turnpike the image of a blonde swam in his head. She grew much warmer in Massachusetts, and he could feel her right under his skin. “Well, couldn’t I drop in to say hello?” “Sure,” gleamed Claude Martin. “I can arrange that.”

And the pieces fell in the right places. He called Weathersfield from a roadside phone and explained to an old girlfriend his plan of infiltrating Yankee Stadium. She felt excitement, then admiration for the most audacious ruse in baseball annals, in all history of the sport. “Of all the people I have ever met, only you, Claude Martin, could think this up, and only you can make it come to pass.”

And these spirits, one true, one chameleon, still part strangers in the passage of night, brothers of a stark and different dreaming, whose paths had interlaced, just came their ways wearing each the dream of the other one, for now Davin Croughmartin dreamed his dream born in a volatile part of his mind, and Claude Martin, young man of many shades, hardly true to any task, any cause, just dreamed of being a New York Yankee.

: 4 :

The administration of Mickey Finn was hardly a sojourn at the State House. It was a simple pill in Davin’s drink, and his glove, his spikes and his brand new car emerged in Yankeeland one day later. Onto the slim form of Millinocket’s past and soon-to-be headline carrier, as though he were born to its gray parallels, as though a god’s tailor had fitted him, slipped the prestigious Yankee uniform, the pin stripe suit of legendary men, the true colors that most Octobers wear, the flopping pants of Joltin’ Joe, the tight knickers that Yogi wore, the stripes that hid Mickey’s iron brace, the uniform of October’s giants. And a strange coming came on that man, a totally unexpected feeling, as if his lie had been gifted with grace, as if his trespass was holy work, ordinance from on high.

And in his mind not a bit of remorse. There was a fever in the locker room that he could not put his hand upon, that he could not weigh, not measure, but surely as he breathed, stood in pin stripes, felt an enveloping euphoria, there was a power coming over him. And nobody spoke to the Down East rookie. The message was all too clear: When you wear Yankee stripes, you wear them well.

: 5 :

Uniforms carry much of reputation, wear the legends of the early donners, those who brought the cloth the early honors, pioneers, solid draft horses, oxen, the founders, the doers, the getters-done, the not-too late-comers, the gallant men of arms, men who brandish sweat before their glory; Yankees like Lazerri and Bill Dickey, Johnny Lindell, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer. For New York cops it was Gaston Purleigh.

As Claude Martin put on the Yankee uniform, as he felt the surge riding on his frame, Gaston Purleigh Jr. went on the streets of the city his father once had owned. New York blue had recovered a great name, and the rookie’s appointment had spread out to every station and every beat where New York blue held a thin vital line. Gaston Purleigh Jr. had faked his physical; his baseball knee, like Mickey’s knee, was hidden in the cloth.

The scars a catcher wears are hidden deep, and Gaston Purleigh, his left hand widened out, knee cartilage bouncing like a piano string, his bright dreams anchored in his thick-heeled shoes and Yankee Stadium a fading thought, walked out into the jungle of New York as his father had walked long years ago. Deep crouching was no longer a valid exercise, no part of daily routine. Something else there was besides stopping base steals.

And these two men so too passed in the Gotham air, the bogus Yankee and the hero’s son, the dreamer-up and the deep dreamer-down, the pretender and the accessory to a saddened, frightful masquerade. In the dugout, nervous, clad in pin stripes, his blood boiling like no way he could recall, perspiration breaking loose in his palms like some small god beginning to bleed deep in the Andes, dreaming the dream only freshman and rookies dream, Claude Martin found himself at his crossroads.

: 6 :

He was torn by the very thing he dared, by the devilish deed he was about, by the simple weight of the uniform he wore, by the silence the locker room gave him, by the bright face of Davin Croughmartin looking slyly at him from a mirror. He had been a child of wild escapades, a mixed-up hellion, a barnyard rooster, and when they moved out of the locker room into the legendary stadium under the eyes of sixty thousand fans, feeling the roar as much as hearing it, the hairs standing on the back of his neck and his heart pounding trip-hammer steady, the September air crisp as a salad, the high lights just a Milky Way of suns, Claude Martin felt as if he were reborn. He inhaled the bright baseball atmosphere, filled his chaotic lungs with ambrosia and all that he could take of excitement, and vaguely remembered a single line of a poem someone once had said about a “baseball sounding Spring.”

He sat in the dugout for eight innings, quietly alert to motivations and maneuverings, the speed the ball had from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove, how the pitcher’s motions were different in different situations, the crowd’s restlessness and hidden expectation, how brittle blocks of air crashed down upon him, when the pitcher made a move to first base, and when the pitcher made no move at all.

Immersed in these observations, alone in the fabled world he had invaded, suddenly wanting to give it all up, Claude Martin heard a voice cracking on the air: “Croughmartin, grab a bat and get up there!” His heart plummeted down to his jockstrap. The skin on his arms went alternately hot and cold, and in his mind one thought rose as he stood trembling on the dugout floor: I’m going to bat as a Yankee.

The murmur of the crowd, the slow rolling of a non-cadenced and soft wind-like sound, oozed out of the grandstand and the bleachers, a small sea breaking up on a small shore, an endless wave on an island solely of baseball, the sound of hope and the sound of promise, the sound of long frustrations dealt a blow, optimism’s eternal youth finding the new shortstop under a telescope. He wondered how cold the winter fjords got.

: 7 :

Gus Purleigh parked the cruiser in the dark of an East Side cul-de-sac quietly bumping into a handful of brownstones. His partner turned the radio down low as the announcer gave Croughmartin’s name. “I have to hear what the kid does,” said Gus. “He’s just come out of the woods Down East way. He’s got to have some guts to go up there and take his licks the very first game out. I hope he takes his rips the way I would.”

The thirty-two ounce bat felt like cement in Claude Martin’s hands, his shoes made of a sudden lead. The slow-rolling and non-cadenced crowd sound began to change, began to chant, and went Gregorian, chanting his name with a strange emphasis: Davin Croughmartin, Davin Croughmartin, Davin Croughmartin. He took it in stride, believing that he was the chanted one, and therefore blessed and strangely enchanted. He turned to face old Mississippi Mud, the Junk man, Rag Picker and Collector of Diverse and Impromptu Pitching Skills, Never Had A Fast Ball In All His Years, The Last of The Slow and Nothing Pitchers, Moved At Half The Speed That Hoyt Wilhelm Did, who turned to face the Bates College rookie. “Hey, Rook, I’m going to bust your little ass!” Then, under the eyes of sixty thousand, at the moment of challenge, knowing full well his ineptness with the wooden club but how fleet of foot he was, Claude Martin felt the surge of Yankee-Past, the Invisible Charge of Champions. He was, after all, wearing Yankee gray. “If I get on,” he yelled, flinging a wise-ass Galahad’s gauntlet to the mound, “I’ll steal you three bases.” The words spread.

Mississippi Mud threw a ball nothing could ever fall off, neither gnat nor ant, in a slow circuitous pitch and which, though it moved nowhere in its plate-ward move, sorely tempted and tantalized the epitome of tyros. His sense of timing, and the inner sense of drama, told him he could never hit any junk ball thrown by Mississippi Mud. His swing thus was inept, at the very least; ludicrous would better describe its arc, and the fans sucked in half the ballpark air.

Mississippi Mud, as old as the hills, too-long master of the mound, pot-bellied, and spitting mad at the clumsy rookie, accepted the dare he should have ignored. “Up yours, Rook, and we’ll see what you can do.” Four pitches in a row floated in like kites had been let loose from the pitching mound, four pitches from a failing Santa Claus, four pitches wide of the mark (or on it), four pitches from the sewer side of pitching, four pitches outside for the base stealer.

The pulsing crowd voiced its admiration, a long and blissful whistling and amen, in appreciation of the rookie’s eyes and anticipation of coming thefts. And the rapscallion from Millinocket took himself down to the bag at first base, set himself up in the runway where Billy Martin once was galvanized. Old Mississippi Mud, on the first pitch, took no notice of the runner on first.

The elusive Millinocket target, acknowledged of Mississippi’s habits which he had studied for eight innings, set out for possession of second base. Neither jack rabbits nor elusive hares could raise more dust in the stealer’s base path. Under the catcher’s throw, clouded by dust, Claude Martin recorded a stolen base. And Mississippi Mud, affronted thus, told the Millinocket flash to watch his head.

“Hey, Rookie, you get your ass in your hands or I’ll slam this ball right between your eyes!” But the Yankee fans had their coming out, their cold breakaways from their nine to fives, and once again they went Gregorian, as if Matins were held over for The House That Ruth Built: Croughmartin , Croughmartin, Davin Croughmartin, steals third base, and loudly, boisterously, If you can’t steal third, you’re not a Yankee. If you can’t steal third, you’re not a Yankee.

When Millinocket’s chief meanderer, quickly as a ferret, stood on third base and felt the eyes of sixty thousand fans casting a warm feeling over his frame, he felt a kinship with all those Yankees who had waged war over the far-flung years. He had put himself in the record book...Two stolen bases in just two tries in his very first game. He had spent his life getting to this place.

Now the undercurrent began to swell, began to move itself in the stadium, came past the chanting and the children screaming; it echoed off concrete walls and open steel, thundered like subway trains in corridors, in deep aortic tunnels where Yankee hearts are first filled with their excitation; it vibrated granite and all the flesh, it moved all the skin and bones and stone wear that make Yankee Stadium come alive as any place in the city.

Claude Martin was caught up in the moment, standing on third base drinking in the sounds, feeling like he was on the very top of the world. He had never been so happy, never dreamed that life could be so enjoyable, that a lifetime could have moments like this. And suddenly his noble bubble burst—out of the dugout, his fist raised on high, and the Yankee manager right behind him, came thundering the real Down East Bates College shortstop.

“It’s too damn hot here,” yelled Claude Martin, to himself as much as to anybody. “I’m getting the hell out of here!” He leaped quickly over the wall at third base, ran right through the suddenly quiet and rigid crowd, dashed underground through the cavernous ways that lie hidden beneath the stadium as massive in being as an iceberg. A picture of a cool Norwegian field, frost-white, ringed by a thick pine greenery, stars as sharp as blue diamonds in the sky, filled his mind as he raced into darkness in Yankee gray.

: 8 :

The press service wires began to hum. Reporters searched for a hyperbole weighty enough to wrap the story with, sought an image, monumental of course, to carry the traitorous Yankee sham. TV news rooms took over the sports shows, moved their somber and all god rapprochement into the tag-team world of young sports. A documentary was born and died in a think-tank high on Fifth Avenue. Night moved.

Yankee fans laughed or cried their way to sleep, buzzed the same monotone in subway cars, spoke of the impostor with reverent awe, or castigated his deep lunacy. Early morning bakers, cabbies and firemen, bartenders and bookies, gas pumpers, pimps and prostitutes, dames and great ladies, all brought themselves to a final question: Would the mysterious Yankee on third base have stolen home plate?

Through the night the world moved towards a new war, an arsonist struck Newark a deadly blow, a frail boy leaped off the Washington Bridge through the outstretched arms of a crying cop, five homicides were reported, two stores were robbed under the menace of shotguns Steve McQueen could have used: and Gus Purleigh, finishing off his day, slackness in his knee with its pain, thinking of the chances he never had, grew outrageously angry at the pseudo Yankee.

Fame and Fortune are fleeting mistresses, are often cosmetic at the touch, their smiles never favoring certain souls. All this Gus Purleigh carried in his mind; the pseudo Yankee did not ease his pain, but seemed to heighten all his frustrations. And coming off duty, knee-favoring, heavy at the heels and at his holstered hip, groping his way to a rewarding sleep, he barely saw the man in Yankee stripes crossing a bare bulb in an alleyway. He thought his eyes were carrying his dream into his wakeful but faltering hours. He yelled, “Hey, you! Hey, Yankee pretender! Don’t you move your ass or I’ll blow your phony head off!” The Police Special was in his right hand. The Yankee image was scribed on his heart. The destiny of baseball was in his path. He sighted down the stubby gun barrel as he had at The Academy. He never knew the arc his finger moved.

Only Claude Martin knew the marksmanship of the aim, a pain behind his shoulder, a needle shot, a piece of red hot fire, a sudden twisting of his whole body as the leaded missile worked its way in a patch of muscle and a piece of bone. He felt a Millinocket forest fire work its way in the system of his nerves. And as he ran, as his speedy legs took him around a corner and out of sight of the hobbled policeman, a fierce and freezing cold invaded him, an icing ran over the red flames and made Norway not so palatable. His lungs filled with frost, a hot-ice steam, an unsheathed stiletto of cold steel, a cold ache he swore he could remember. “Oh, Christ, I don’t want to go to Norway,” he mumbled. “Just to someplace nice and warm. Some place in the Mediterranean. Some place like Naples or maybe Athens.”

Soft warm water, green, friendly as a bed, that’s all I need. I didn’t need to be a Yankee. And I don’t need to be here. Just get myself to Athens by the sea, warm and sweet Athens by the godly hill, warm place of wisdom, place of Athena. No place where Thor throws that godforsaken hammer, no place where pain lives atop things, where ice and night seem to be forever.

In an alley a bum recognized him. “They’re all still back there waiting for you, kid. You let the uniform down. Poor old Babe is rolling around in his grave about now, getting hot. He’s getting a little pissed off at you. Get a little down and they kick your butt. You ask me and I’ll tell you how it goes. I know from experience. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the sling and in the hot sun ever since I can remember. I can never go back, but you sure can.”

Claude Martin, now substantially weaker, his heart pounding a self-countable pulse, legs getting floppy and rubber bandy, a funny acidic taste in his mouth, slipped down the alley past the patriot. Athens slipped into and slipped out of his mind. Athena, athenaeum, godly hill, Thor striking his ax across home plate, a boy looking like him waving a fist over his head, in a Millinocket cemetery a cop twisting his arm behind his neck and the hands cold as a January wind; wasn’t that his father waving a fist beside the barn in the false gray morning, his mother with her fist stuffed in her mouth standing by the door like a laundry bag, in front of him, monolithic and cold, gray, a wall he had seen on television.

: 9 :

Chink Holman lived in Yankee Stadium. Nobody had seen him outside its walls in thirty-seven years of his service. Nobody knew where he lay down his head; in what deep confines, impenetrable to all but Chink, he spent most of his life. But he was a Yankee down to the core. Yankee burned in his blood, kept him alive, and on his morning constitutional, rising from the gray and cool depths like Grendel reborn, he was the one who called the newspapers and the television stations, and then the police, and then Yankee management. It was Chink Holman who opened the gates and let in the entire Fourth Estate, and the TV’s instant eye’s shining lens and its forty-man crew of supporters, and Sports Illustrated’s Tuxedo’d Horde, and Cosell because he liked Dandy Don and remembered Gifford’s bell getting rung by the wild linebacker from Bethlehem.

Chink Holman was a Yankee PR man who made his living as a groundskeeper. And they gathered as he directed them, near the dugout and a canvas drop cloth which he had taken from the paint shop. They gathered, these men of words and pictures, an army of bright professionals, at Chink’s bidding, as if he were Arthur about to draw the sword, as if a new mustang had leaped the ranks. In a slow and deliberate unveiling, he drew back the mustard-colored drop cloth.

Some of those hard men cried, some of them wept, some of them held a gasp caught in their throats, one of them walked off into the flat gray dawn. One thought of a lead line and a title which would emblazon him in Yankee-land; one slowly knelt in the batter’s circle, when he saw Yankee number 32, like a beach upon which blood had washed; one photographer thought of his brother still hiding out someplace in World War II.

Number 32 was bent and fetal, as if he hugged himself into himself, like a Boy Scout knot at exhibition, like a last cry for help can be molded in the very flesh of the one who cries for help amongst his peers and agonies. Groundskeeper Holman rolled over bloody 32 in a manner that at any other time could have been called callous, but there, tucked away in the grip of death, stolen forever, was Yankee home plate.

The mere groundskeeper spoke in the stricken silence, his voice sure, confident, carrying through the stadium in the gray morning, his eyes fastened on the fallen figure, his mind full of corporate fervor and the astonishing annals of purest admiration, the bit of love itself. “Gentlemen,” he said, his head bowed, cool as a lama at annunciation, “this man here was a Yankee.”


SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Tom Sheehan

served in the 31st Infantry in Korea in 1951, and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books include Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights. In the Garden of Long Shadows, The Nations, and Where Skies Grow Wide were recently published by Pocol Press. Sons of Guns, Inc. was just released by Nazar Look Books in Romania (where he was awarded a Nazar Look Short Story Award for 2014).

Sheehan’s eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering (National Book Award nomination), Murder at the Forum, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, An Accountable Death, and Vigilantes East.

His work also appears in numerous magazines and journals such as Rosebud, KYSO Flash, Copperfield Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Literary Orphans, Literally Stories, Provo Canyon Review, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope and Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Western Online, The Path, Faith-Hope-Fiction, and many others. He has 28 Pushcart Prize nominations.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury