That you, Babe? he wanted to ask. That you?
Babe started drinking as soon as the black guys picked their nine. He didn't know what was wrong--it was just a ball game--but he still felt sad and filled with shame. It didn't make no sense. It was just a game. Some summer fun to wait out the train repair. Nothing more. And yet, the sadness and the shame wouldn't leave, so he unscrewed his flask cap and took a healthy swig.
He begged off pitching, said his elbow was still sore from game one. Said he had a World Series record to think about, the scoreless-inningspitched record, and he wasn't risking that for some bush league pickup game in the sticks.
So Ebby Wilson pitched. Ebby was a mean, flap-jawed boy from the Ozarks, who'd been playing for Boston since July. He smiled when they put the ball in his hands. "That's right, boys. Be done with these niggers 'fore you know it. 'Fore they know it, too." And he laughed even though no one laughed with him.
Ebby started it off throwing high heat and burned right through the top of their order in no time. Then Sticky Joe came to the mound, and that nigra had no other gear but full on, and when he uncorked that loping, tentacle- swing delivery, god knew what was coming at you. He threw fastballs that went invisible; screwballs that had eyes--soon as they saw a bat, they ducked, winking at you; curveballs that could circle a tire; breaking balls that exploded four inches before the plate. He whiffed Mann. He whiffed Scott. And he got McInnis out to end the inning on a pop-up to second.
It was a pitchers' duel there for a few innings, not much hit past the mound, and Ruth starting to yawn out in left, taking longer sips from the flask. Still, the coloreds scored a run in the second and another in the third, Luther Laurence turning a run from first to second into a run from first to home, tear-assing so fast across the infield it took
Hollocher by surprise and he muffed the relay from center and by the time he stopped bobbling the ball, Luther Laurence was crossing the plate.
What had started as a joke game went from surprised respect ("Ain't ever seen anyone put mustard on the ball like that ol' nigra. Even you, Gidge. Hell, even Walter Johnson. Man's a marvel") to nervous joking ("Think we'll score a run before we got to get back to, you know, the World Fucking Series?") to anger ("Niggers own this field. That's what it is. Like to see them play Wrigley. Like to see them play Fenway. Shit").
The coloreds could bunt--good Lord could they bunt; ball would land six inches from the plate and stop moving like it'd been shot. And they could run. They could steal bases like it was as simple as deciding you liked standing on second more than first. And they could hit singles. By the bottom of the fifth, it looked like they could hit singles all day long, just step up and poke another one out of the infield, but then Whiteman came over to the mound from first and had a chat with Ebby Wilson, and from that point Ebby stopped trying to play cute or clever, just unloaded heat like he didn't care if it put his arm in the sling through winter.
Top of the sixth, the coloreds ahead 6 -3, Stuffy McInnis took a fi rst-pitch fastball from Sticky Joe Beam and hit it so far over the trees that Luther Laurence didn't even bother looking for it. They got another ball from the canvas bag beside the bench, and Whiteman took that one long, got into second standing up, and then Flack took two strikes and fought off six more for fouls, and then pooched a single to shallow left and it was 6-4, men on first and third, no one out.
Babe could feel it as he wiped his bat down with a rag. He could feel all their bloodstreams as he stepped to the plate and horse-pawed the dirt with his shoe. This moment, this sun, this sky, this wood and leather and limbs and fingers and agony of waiting to see what would happen was beautiful. More beautiful than women or words or even laughter.
Sticky Joe brushed him back. Threw a hard curve that came in high and inside and would have taken Babe's teeth on a journey through Southern Ohio if he hadn't snapped his head back from it. He leveled the bat at Sticky Joe, looked down it like he was looking down a rifl e. He saw the glee in the old man's dark eyes, and he smiled and the old man smiled back, and they both nodded and Ruth wanted to kiss the old man's bumpy forehead.
"You all agree that's a ball?" Babe shouted, and he could see even Luther laughing, way out in center field.
God, it felt good. But, oh, hey, here it comes, a shotgun blast of a breaking ball and Ruth caught the seam with his eye, saw that red line dive and started swinging low, way lower than where it was, but knowing where it was going to be, and sumbitch, if he didn't connect with it, tore that fucking ball out of space, out of time, saw that ball climb the sky like it had hands and knees. Ruth started running down the line and saw Flack take off from first, and that was when he felt certain that he hadn't gotten all of it. It wasn't pure. He yelled, "Hold!" but Flack was running. Whiteman was a few steps off third, but staying in place, arms out in either direction as Luther drifted back toward the tree line, and Ruth saw the ball appear from the same sky into which it had vanished and drop straight down past the trees into Luther's glove.
Flack had already started back from second, and he was fast, and the moment Luther fired that ball toward first, Whiteman tagged up from third. And Flack, yes, Flack was very fast, but Luther had some sort of cannon in that skinny body of his and that ball shrieked over the green field and Flack trampled the ground like a stagecoach and then went airborne as the ball slapped into Aeneus James's glove, and Aeneus, the big guy Ruth had first encountered playing center field when he'd come out of the trees, swept his long arm down as Flack slid on his chest toward first and the tag hit him high on the shoulder and then his hand touched the bag.
Aeneus lowered his free hand to Flack, but Flack ignored it and stood up.
Aeneus tossed the ball back to Sticky Joe.
Flack dusted off his pants and stood on the first base bag. He placed his hands on his knees and planted his right foot toward second.
Sticky Joe stared over at him from the mound.
Aeneus James said, "What you doing, suh?"
Flack said, "What's that?" his voice a little too bright.
Aeneus James said, "Just wondering why you still here, suh." Flack said, "It's where a man stands when he's on first, boy." Aeneus James looked exhausted suddenly, as if he'd just come home from a fourteen- hour workday to discover somebody'd stolen his couch.
Ruth thought: Oh, Jesus, no.
"You was out, suh."
"Talking about, boy? I was safe."
"Man was safe, nigger." This from Ebby Wilson, standing beside Ruth all of a sudden. "Could see it from a mile off."