Batter Up!

Made in the U.S.A.

by H. Turnip Smith

 

A baffled cat skulked across the street, wondering where the hell everybody was. First time in years the summer streets had been deserted. Up at Evans' Old Time Ice Cream Emporium Kerry Ann Hooper, the last Cooperstownian working, scraped the bottom of the fudge ripple carton, eyes wandering to the ancient wallscreen. What was it about consumption of fudge ripple and baseball fans, she wondered? As a matter of fact, what was it about baseball fans anyway? Who got excited about a bunch of overpaid brutes standing in the sun scratching and spitting? Great mystery. Regardless, it was the most interesting Cooperstown weekend since the school bus barn caught on fire in 2026. Recycled Harry S. Truman in town and that old hawk-eyed, pipe-smoking General What's-His-Face with a plate of scrambled eggs on his hat and the ambassador to Planet Belgorvia and sixteen movie stars, all filling their faces with fudge ripple.

On the fuzzy black and white screen she could see the Belgorvians lined up along the third base line, thirty little goobers in burnt orange uniforms with their pointy white ball caps like KKK members and glittering waist-high cell phones in gold holsters. The sun glinted off their titanium limbs, casting long shadows on the freshly mowed, forest green grass. Dukie Backslash to the Second Power, their manager, and the other chipmunk-toothed coaches stood there in their itty-bitty, pointy caps looking like a matched set of outer-space salt and pepper shakers.

Down the first base line, twenty-five American players in Yankee pinstripes with red, white and blue hats fidgeted, adjusted jewelry, chewed pistachios, and scratched crotch the way ballplayers always did. Farther down in the bullpen, Kerry Ann could hear the chunk of the American pitcher warming up and across the way the sizzle and burn of Vlobski, the supposedly unhittable Belgorvian pitching machine manufactured by Belgorvia Technologies United, as its hinges oiled up.

Up behind the dugout Mr. Mack stood tall in his old-fashioned black suit with the celluloid collar and white bow tie. Kerry Ann wondered what he was thinking. You could never quite read Mr. Mack's face. He was like one of those chunks of ancient New England granite they used to carve presidential faces out of. Sometimes at school he'd bore everybody silly about his own baseball days back before players' unions and selling the team star to cut payroll -- hell, even before the Milwaukee Brewers were in the National League.

She figured he had to be churning inside. After all, there was this bet -- the deal was if the Belgorvians won, they would simply offload the museum, town and all, by space shuttle to some outer-space dunghill west of the Belgorvian capitol, and she didn't relish the idea of eating puffed Belgorvian veggie chunks in the Cooperstown High lunchroom even if Belgorvia did own three-fourths of the western quadrant of the Venutian orbital plane, two large chunks of Australia, and was negotiating a lease on the moon as well. The awful part was the whole stupid game was some sort of crazy bet the mayor had made. Of course, nobody in their right mind took Mayor Conklin seriously except the Belgorvians who didn't have a sense of humor period. After all, Kerry Ann had seen her honorable elected official wearing red-striped underwear to fetch in his morning newspaper and how impressed could you be? Well, plenty, the pointy-headed Belgorvians apparently thought, because they bit when Conklin shot his mouth off.

So here was Dukie Backslash's crew with seven spoiled free agents from the American big leagues, sixteen giganto baseball robots, nineteen straight wins in the World Series and still unscored upon in interplanetary play with Vlobski the Great pitching, and Mayor Conklin has to go and bet the museum, the stadium, and the whole mucked-up village on one game played at the local ball yard.

"Excuse me, but Mayor Conklin is out of his gourd," Kerry Ann said to the cat and continued to suds the dishes. Even if baseball bored, didn't she love every inch of the town that was about to be shipped to a point a universe and a half from the earth? Hadn't she walked by that cozy, green diamond on her way to school every day for fifteen years? Hell, you didn't have to be a baseball fan to love Cooperstown Field with its shimmering grass and old-fashioned advertising signs on the wooden fences.

One day Mr. Mack had told the high school, "It's a national treasure. No matter how much progress we make materially and how many new planets we explore, some things ought never change." He was talking about Cooperstown.

Kerry Ann figured that's the sort of delusion you got when you were a hundred and twenty years old. After all, Mr. Mack still rode a coaster bike to the high school 100 years after man had colonized the moon. He was always saying, "I can teach you physics, children, but in things that really count it's the human heart that matters."

Kerry Ann had no idea what he meant by that, but that was Mr. Mack's way, tinker with machines, ride a 100-year-old bike, and talk philosophy. Well, Kerry Ann was glad he hadn't retired. It got sickening at the high school listening to the new breed of no-nothing teachers who couldn't talk about anything but being underpaid.

Suddenly the sound of the National Anthem, as majestically rendered by the Cooperstown High Marching Conklinettes, came grinding out of the wall, followed by the strains of the Belgorvian Bounce or whatever the hell the Belgorvian national tune was; then a humongous cheer went up. That was the signal. Kerry Ann locked up the store and hightailed it up towards the huge oak in Selden's back yard behind the center field wall. Butch was already parked in the tree, staring into a pair of binoculars.

"Where you been, Sis?" Butch said. "The Gorvies have already scored two runs and they got a machine on third with one out. Listen, you can hear its motor humming from here."

Who cared, Kerry Ann thought, wishing she'd brought something along to read. Instead she scooted out on the limb and said, "How's Mr. Mack handling losing?"

"Get a life, Kerri," Butch said. "Mack's a billion years old."

"He's the nicest man in the world," Kerry Ann said.

Butch just shrugged, but the sun-drenched grass and the signs advertising Knickerbocker Beer on the outfield fences and the crowd all crazy and the Belgorvian ball-machines glinting in the sunlight and the flag waving over the grandstand behind home plate and the faint odor of buttered popcorn drifting out to center and Mr. Mack sitting folded up and composed behind the American dugout suddenly made the hair on the back of Kerry Ann's neck stand up.

"You think it's kind of, uh -- beautiful, Butch?" she asked.

"Beautiful? You need help, Kerry. It's just baseball. It ain't about beauty. Watch it! Oh crap, that Gorvie stole third. Watch for the squeeze!" Butch almost lost his balance in the tree. "Sis, don't you realize this game is being simulcast to 70 gazillion people on six different planets and the whole future of American baseball is riding on it? Don't talk so damn much about irrelevant stuff!"

Kerry Ann watched Butch's eyes as they stayed glued to the action just as a Belgorvian robot-dude cracked a liner that took the American centerfield racing to the wall right below them.

"Get it! Get it!. Oh no -- three zip," Butch moaned as a Belgorvian runner tagged up and motored home on the catch, his batteries humming like an electric pencil.

After that run, the game settled into a monotonous pattern -- out, out, out. Kerry watched as down in the right field corner Molly Conklin, the incredibly homely high school homecoming queen and daughter of Cooperstown's retarded mayor, hung another old-fashioned inning sign to mark the progress of the game. Belgorvia 3 - U.S. 0, bottom of the eighth.

"We're beat, Sis," Butch sighed. "Dead! Done! Headed for puffed veggie ball city. Nobody can touch that Belgorvian pitching machine. He's got a 102-mile-an-hour fastball, a curve, and a significant vectoral variance for when he gets in trouble, which is never. Only six more outs."

"I'm not giving up, Butch," Kerry Ann said. "Mr. Mack's still here."

"Mr. Mack? Mr. Mack? Some 118-year-old high school teacher. What good is he?" Butch said, suddenly interrupting himself, "Hey. Look."

Just then Molly Conklin opened the little door in the right field corner of the outfield wall, and trotting in from that direction were nine new American players with funny, little pancake ballgloves and hats that looked like they'd been sat on. There was a barrel-chested guy pigeon-toeing it on skinny little legs, a hard-eyed swaggerer with his shirt buttoned to his neck, and a bandy-legged Dutchman with a clump of tobacco wadded in one jaw.

Then before Kerry knew it a wide-shouldered pinch-hitter was striding up to the plate. He stopped and whispered something to Mr. Mack. Kerry Ann could see the blue glint of his eyes even from where she was sitting.

"Now batting for the U.S. Hornsby. Rogers Hornsby," Mr. Conklin announced over the public address system as Mr. Mack suddenly straightened his straw boater.

"Horn who?" Kerry Ann said. "Look, Butch, Mr. Mack is coming out of the stands for the dugout to shake hands with these new guys."

"Hornsby?" Butch said dubiously. "What's a Hornsby?"

However, before Kerry Ann could reply, the pinch-hitter rifled Vlobski's first pitch into the gap in left and slid into second so hard the Belgorvian second base-machine tumbled on its titanium buttski as Hornsby barreled in spikes high. Then the bowlegged Dutchman sacrificed Hornsby to third and the next pinch hitter, a chunky black guy named Gibson lifted a shot to left that just barely stayed in the park, scoring Hornsby to make it 3-1.

Kerry Ann started paying attention in the top of the ninth when some skinny dude named Johnson with high socks and a fastball that you could hear sizzling from Selden's oak came in to pitch. Even from center field Kerry could sense the confusion in the Belgorvian hitting machines as Johnson's pitches splatted into the catcher's mitt.

"You see that Gorvie geek step in the bucket on that pitch?" Butch laughed. "Man, this new dude can throw."

"The Big Train," Kerry Ann muttered, not knowing where it came from or what it meant as Johnson threw eleven pitches and three Belgorvian machines struck out -- including the cleanup hitter, who fouled his own coiling mechanism so badly he did six swinging 360s and crashed over on his back in the dirt before an embarrassed Dukie Backslash could rush out with a monkey wrench and get him unwound.

"Bottom of the ninth, Kerry, I'm scared to look," Butch said, cramming a wad of Double Bubble in his mouth as gloomy shadows gobbled sunlight. Meanwhile, Mr. Mack himself was only a lean, creaky shadow behind the home dugout.

Dukie Backslash and the brain-trust had obviously cranked Vlobski to full velocity for the ninth because you couldn't even see a blur of ball as Speaker grounded out and DiMaggio popped to third.

"Hey, look at that guy in the dugout? He's filing his spikes," Butch said as this hard-eyed American thug strutted into the on-deck circle.

Mr. Conklin announced, "Cobb hitting for Vandertoosh."

The hardcase with the sharpened spikes crouched, crowding the plate, holding the bat at half mast. On the first pitch Vlobski the Great sent him sprawling in the dirt. Just like he'd been launched at the Cape, Cobb came scrambling up and rushed the mound, landing a wicked left to the pitching machine's impassive, metal jaw.

"Ouch!" Kerry Ann said.

When order was restored and Cobb had his hand bandaged up, he lashed a single to right.

Then the pigeon-toed guy with the big chest ambled up to the plate. A hushed whisper made its way through the stands.

"Holy Jesus, the Babe; it's the Babe," Butch cried. Kerry Ann studied the insolent grace of the Babe himself. Then before the crowd could half go crazy, bam -- Ruth sent a screamer to right. The throw came in to third low and hard, and when the Belgorvian third base-machine finally peeled the spikes out of his metal, Cobb was safe on third and the Babe was on second.

Of course, Dukie stormed out of the Belgorvian dugout to argue with the ump. As he went, he was jacking his digital controller around nervously and dialing in codes like crazy as out on the mound Vlobksi trembled all over, rocking back and forth like a starched sheet on an April clothesline in response to sixty contradictory electrical inputs surging in. Then, slowly, out of the American dugout, Mr. Mack wheeled this funny looking, waddling, black rubber machine on a long electrical cord.

Dukie Backslash took one look and laughed out loud. Kerry knew what he was thinking, "Second-rate American technology."

Then Mayor Conklin's voice came over the P.A. system. "Now batting for the United States -- Otto Matic."

"What is he?" Butch said.

"We built him in Mr. Mack's advanced physics class," Kerry Ann said proudly, glancing at Mr. Mack now standing straight and tall in the corner of the dugout, scorecard clutched over his heart as the rest of the American players crowded the dugout steps.

Otto toddled up to the plate like a penguin with vertigo. The 42-ounce Hillerich and Bradsby fit directly into the socket where real players had Adam's apples; meanwhile, Otto whirled in a perpetual circle.

Cobb feinted off third as Vlobski sizzled one into the catcher's mitt with an electrical hiss like a short in an electric chair. Otto missed it by a good foot.

Vlobski came set again as sweat balled in Kerry's palms.

"You're the man, Otto, please! Clobber the slob!" Butch cried, clutching the limb.

"Yeah, you're the man," Kerry echoed.

Then Vlobski dipped and dealt. It was a tricky vector shift that darted towards the outside corner after starting high and away. The umpire boomed, "Strike two," as Dukie B. pirouetted on one foot, bowing to the booing crowd, and Mr. Mack adjusted the controls of his hand-held computer.

Kerry glanced at Butch, whose lips were moving in prayer. Meanwhile, old General What-Ya-Ma-Callit in the scrambled eggs hat stood up, pipe clenched in his teeth, saluting the flag with both hands, and Dukie B. raised both arms in the air in a victory pose as drops of 10W-30 streamed down the back of Vlobski's neck while Otto continued to whirl.

Finally Vlobski suddenly dipped, rocked, curled, grunted, and fired, a little trail of blue smoke exiting his shoulder socket with a whoosh.

Somehow Otto's bat connected, machine over matter. The Belgorvian third-base robot tried to get its glove up, but too late. The ball drilled a circular hole clean through its electrical units, exiting his back side and smashing into the wall knee-high at the 327-foot mark.

"It's over!" Butch cried, "we win!" as the ball rolled forgotten to the silky grass along the left field line. Then Mr. Mack kneeled down and kissed the turf before striding solemnly, back like a ramrod, straight towards home plate to shake hands with a crestfallen Dukie Backslash as Kerry gave Butch a hand down from the tree and murmured over her shoulder, "You know what, Butch? I think I kind of like this stupid American baseball after all."

 

Story copyright © 1998 H. Turnip Smith <tsmith@sinclair.edu>

Illustration copyright © 1998 Ray Dangel <radangel@eazy.net>


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