February 11, 2006

The Long Pitch Goodbye

Part 1 of 3

Sunshine is what Florida sells. Sunshine, warm breezes, palm trees and the kind of pure, white sand beaches that haven’t been seen since before the Everglades were plowed under and paved over, if they ever existed at all. Thanks to the tourism industry even the clockwork monotony of our afternoon thunderstorms is a selling point. But not everyone down here spends their days sipping mojitos and shopping along Collins Avenue. Some of us have to work for a living. That’s why I was at my desk when they shuffled in.

They had the tell-tale pasty whiteness of Northerners, and the perpetual squint of people who spent too much of their lives in out of the sun. But the outfits were the dead giveaway. Baseball
jerseys or polo shirts over pleated khakis, shorts that were too baggy to be anything but utilitarian, the sort of Velcro sandals favored by toddlers and stoned college kids. And everywhere Curly Ws… Washington Nationals fans.

I had seen a few before, last spring and summer, when they were the
trendy new thing. But as summer faded into fall so had the Nats, and fashion, ever fickle, moved on to the next sports logo. But these folks weren’t behind the times trendsters. It showed in their Wilkerson and Loiaza jerseys, last year’s batting practice warm-ups, blue and red DC caps. These were legitimate fans. And they had a very real job opportunity for me.

“We’re looking for one of our pitchers, Darrell Rasner. He’s gone missing, and pitchers and catchers are due to report to Viera in less than a week. He’s one of our best young arms. Can you find him?” I had to think about it. I was a Marlins man by trade, but hell, their entire 2006 season was shaping up to be an extended Spring Training, so I wasn’t going to miss much there. And business was always slow in the weeks between the Superbowl and Daytona. So I took their money, and their case.

Florida in February is everything you never see in the brochures. We still get our warm, sunny days, but they’re mixed in with days when the air never quite loses that morning chill and the sky takes on the dull leaden color of month-old chewing gum. Even the thunderstorms are sullen, half-hearted affairs. It was shaping up to be that kind of day when I set off to look for the Nationals errant pitcher.

The best way to find a missing ballplayer is to be sure you know where they aren’t. So I embarked on a search of every strip club and dive bar between Palmetto Bay and Palm Shores, in the name of conducting a thorough investigation. After 3 days I’d exhausted all my leads and all my clients’ credit cards, so I decided it was time to pay a visit to the Nationals Spring Training complex in Viera.

If the Florida Chamber of Commerce had its way, the highway exit to Viera would be unmarked. Every negative cliché, the strip malls, the chain stores, the Disney-fication of suburbia, had been welcomed here with open arms. When
Panera is the paragon of local fine dining, well… the less said the better. The Nationals brass set up shop at Space Coast Stadium. When the Marlins, who play in the worst stadium in professional baseball, abandon a facility that ought to raise red flags. But beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. I parked, locked my car in the deserted lot and strolled into the stadium past a security guard sleeping off the effects of one too many Smokehouse Turkey Paninis.

After bluffing my way past a few secretaries with some fast talk about agents, veteran outfielders, and non-guaranteed contracts I gained access to the inner sanctum, the offices of Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden. Jim Bowden is famous in baseball circles the way Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards is famous in Olympic lore. The man collects nicknames the way dryer sheets collect lint. Trader Jim, P.T Bowden, Bowda, The Cincinnati Kid… and more that aren’t fit to repeat. But say what you will, there are only 30 GM jobs in Major League Baseball, and he’s got one of them. When I slipped into his office he was hunched over his desk, engrossed in a copy of the 2006 Sporting News Fantasy Baseball Handbook, pouring over lists of free agent infielders.

I coughed lightly, and he looked up surprised, shuffling the magazine away like a teenage boy whose parents have arrived home unexpectedly. He was wearing a blue track suit, but I was willing to bet Mike Piazza’s heterosexuality that the treadmill in his office hadn’t seen duty as anything more than a clothes rack this century. I briefly explained the nature of my business.

“Rasper?” Bowden seemed genuinely perplexed, “doesn’t ring a bell. Is he an infielder?” Patiently, I repeated that I was looking for Darrell Rasner, a pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA in his big league debut last season. “Ratner, Ratner… well, if he’s a pitcher he must be around here somewhere. We never dump pitchers. Can’t have enough pitching I always say. Pitching, pitching, pitching!”

It was then that Bowden whipped up his track jacket to reveal his lower torso. Inscribed just above his stomach, in the style of an exceptionally amateur prison tattoo was indeed “Pitching, Pitching, Pitching.” I only got a quick look, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that those Ps might have started out as Bs. The poor guy did put in hard time under Marge Schott.

I told Bowden that there was no sign of Rasner on the 40-man roster, and he was nowhere to be found among the Non-Roster Invitees, but I could tell that with no toolsy outfielders for trade or rent, he was quickly losing interest. “40-man roster? Never heard of it. I mostly handle the signings. Maybe Bob Boone’s in charge of this “roster” thingy. Talk to him.” I beat a hasty retreat before Bowden tried to show me any of the other tricks he learned during his time chained up in Marge Schott’s basement.

I needed a drink. I'd deal with Bob Boone tomorrow...


Basil said...

I'm not sure I trust this Bowden. I think he's hiding something, but I can't prove it. (He strikes me as the type of guy who pats his secretary on the fanny one day, then kills her the next when she becomes an inconvenience.)

Either way, I'm hooked.

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