Strike Zone [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Richard Curtis
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: When baseball's biggest rising star, Willie Hesketh, declares he is going to cross the picket line to play the game he loves, someone doesn't agree. Before Willie even has a chance to arrive at the battle, four thugs with bats waylay him. Now Willie is laid up in the hospital with a slim chance of walking again. All he knows is that he believes he put out the eye of one of the goons and he begs Bolt to get revenge. It is a twisty road through the maze of managers, union leaders and players, but sports agent Bolt has a map-one that leads straight to a one-eyed man.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1975
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2008
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2 Reader Ratings:
I hereby make the following bona fide offer: if you can convince me that there is any single experience more satisfying than watching the first exhibition game of spring training, I will dispatch a check for one hundred smackers to your favorite charity. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're going to say. But believe it or not, given my choice between balling some Hollywood queen and sitting on a hard bleacher in Pompano Beach or St. Petersburg or Vero or Lauderdale or Tucson, my mind doesn't hesitate a fraction of a second.
Laugh if you will, but don't knock it if you haven't tried it.
By all rights today should have been no different. The early afternoon air over the St. Petersburg stadium was warm and dry and deliciously tangy with salt drifting in on a moderate Gulf breeze. I could feel my bones, all but frozen brittle by New York's bitterest winter in years, flexing restlessly in the sunbeams, tempting me to do something crazy like stripping and leaping onto the field and streaking to the center field wall. I was bathed in my favorite medium, spectators, and the best kind at that: pretty sports groupies, young and cow-eyed and enthusiastic, their firm, fair, peach-fuzzed limbs shooting out of shorts and tops so tight and skimpy I wondered why they bothered to dress at all.
And on top of all this, it was a good game, the New York Mets, St. Petersburg's "home" team, sitting on a 2-1 lead over the San Francisco Giants going into the seventh inning.
Had it been any other spring, I'd have been happier than a sow in a slop-trough. But not this spring. Not today. That old feeling was gone, and I wondered if I'd ever get it back. And I wondered, too, how many other fans sitting here and in other exhibition parks across the South felt the same way, and for that matter, how many of the players themselves? Was it my imagination, or was the atmosphere both on and off the field subdued, devoid of that zealous fervor spiced with zaniness that still makes baseball fans the greatest ones of all? After what had happened, could anyone ever again watch a baseball game with that innocent ardor of yore?
Maybe I was unduly sensitive to these gloomy thoughts because of the proximity of Willie Hesketh. He sat beside me in his wheelchair, both legs and arms in casts, watching the game with Spartan stolidity. He had scarcely moved or spoken since his wife, Alma, parked him on the ramp beside me in the third inning. I'd begged him not to come, for his sake as well as mine (to say nothing of poor suffering Alma), but some demonic, masochistic urge had driven him to insist. It was awful, horrible. I squirmed with anguish and guilt and fought back an impulse to flee. Every time there was a play to the Mets' left fielder, a rookie named Gene Pratt, I could feel the jealousy radiating out of Willie's soul like withering blasts of radioactivity. I knew that Willie was thinking, "That's my position, motherfucker. I should be fielding those balls. The fans should be cheering for me!"
In the top of the seventh, Pratt made a particularly fine play, a circus catch of a foul blooper near the stands, ending the inning. I automatically rose to my feet for the seventh inning stretch, then, remembering Willie, dropped remorsefully back to my seat. I looked sidelong at him and bit my lip. Moisture brimmed high in his dark eyes and began to flow down the creases of his walnut-colored cheeks and into his brushy black mustache. I wanted to die. I reached over and gripped his left hand, the hand they hadn't broken, and squeezed it to express the empathy I felt for him. But his flesh was cold and responseless, like a cadaver's. Nothing could penetrate the armor of pain Willie Hesketh wore today, and unless he underwent a miracle of rehabilitation, he would wear it for the rest of his life. I wouldn't have blamed him if he were contemplating suicide at this moment, for his life as a ballplayer was over, and for Willie life and ballplaying were synonymous. No one knew better than I what that meant. Hell, I'd almost committed suicide myself--suicide by inches, with alcohol--nine or ten years earlier after my football career with the Dallas Cowboys was shattered by an ankle-splintering tackle.
But the difference is that I'd suffered my injury honorably, in the line of duty. Willie had not. Willie had been beaten brutally in the vicious culmination of the most rancorous strike in sports history.
I squeezed his hand again, trying to make hope flow like electricity into his deadened flesh, to let him know that the heartache does eventually subside and you do eventually sweep the shards of broken dreams into the dustpan and build a new life for yourself as I'd done. But the agony was still too fresh and tender for Willie to comprehend this.
I can't tell you how relieved I was when he turned to me and said, "Dave, I think I'd like to leave."
"Whatever you say, Willie."
I looked up at Alma, whose beautiful oval face was contorted with ill-suppressed grief, and nodded. She kicked the brake on his wheelchair. Mine was only one of a dozen hands that offered to help, but Willie waved everyone away.
And then, as Alma pivoted the chair and pushed it up the runway, an extraordinary thing happened. Billy Moffatt, the Giants pitcher, in the middle of his windup noticed Willie leaving. He stepped off the rubber, tucked the ball and his glove under one arm and began applauding Willie. For a moment the other Giants players looked bewildered. Then Roger Ainley at first base realized what was going on and he started applauding, too. Chris Speier at shortstop took it up, followed by Bobby Murcer, Gary Matthews, and Garry Maddox in the outfield. John Milner, the Mets first baseman at bat, stepped out of the batter's box and joined in. Mets started pouring out of the dugout, and I recognized Buddy Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Randy Garrett, and Felix Millan among those joining in the accolade. In fact, the only Met not clapping was Gene Pratt, the kid who'd nailed down the job that undoubtedly would have been Willie's. I knew what he was thinking: as badly as he'd wanted that left field position, he didn't want to win his job that way.
Umpire Bill Cleavy took off his mask and saluted Willie with cap over heart. The fans rose out of their seats, in little clumps at first, then in waves, until not a soul remained seated as a cheer swelled from one side of the stadium to the other. Alma had turned the wheelchair around so Willie could see the ovation was for him. His eyes rounded with amazement, and I could see his chin quivering with emotion. His fellow ballplayers had every reason to hate him, for, by declaring his intention to enter training camp while every other player in the major leagues was boycotting spring training, he had dealt a stunning blow to the strike, a blow which ultimately proved fatal to it. The players had scathingly reviled him. But Willie was to pay for his decision, pay for it with his pulverized limbs, pay for it with his career.
And yet, by extending him this ovation, the players were telling him they bore him no vindictiveness, that they understood how badly he had wanted to be a major league player, begin a great career with the Mets. And what's more, they were saying they not only forgave him, but embraced him as one of their own. They deplored what had happened to him and recognized him for what he now was--a fallen ballplayer who still loved the game he would never play again.
Willie bowed his head in mute acknowledgment, then gestured brusquely for Alma to get him out of there before he broke down.
At that moment my mind flashed back to the first time I'd ever seen Willie. An old friend of mine coaching the Savannah Braves in the Southern League had called me to tell me about him. Willie had been burning up the league, and a number of major league teams had received rave scouting reports on him. The Mets had begun negotiating with him to bring him up to New York in September to play out the last month of their losing season, just for a trial, and Willie had asked my friend what he should do. My friend had said, "Call Dave Bolt."
It had irked me to tear myself away from my office during one of the busiest seasons in the sports agent's year, and I'd said to my friend, "This guy had better be worth it." As it turned out, Willie was gloriously, sublimely, exquisitely worth it. Watching him, I thought of another Willie I'd seen at the outset of a fabulous career when I was a kid. Willie Hesketh had all of Willie Mays's strength, speed, and style, plus a certain finesse and intellectual grasp of strategy--what baseball people call "smarts"--that it took Mays several years of major league seasoning to refine.
I remembered in particular one circus catch he'd made on a sure home run to deep left center field, in which he had literally run up the wooden fence like a racing car climbing to the lip of a banked curve, snaring the ball and running down again. Later he told me he'd practiced that stunt dozens and dozens of times and it was really easier than it looked, except he was afraid one day he'd catch his spikes in the wood and leave his ankles up there.
I can't say his tryout with the Mets was a complete success, but then I didn't expect it to be. He was nervous, disoriented, unfamiliar with his teammates and the opposition, and was played in only eight or nine games. But he did hit eight for thirty at-bats, including a towering home run that I believe may still be rolling somewhere outside Shea Stadium, and made some fielding plays that left no doubt in anyone's mind that Willie Hesketh was, barring injury, heading for superstardom. Barring injury: how bitterly that phrase stuck in my mind today.
I'd negotiated a nice but unspectacular bonus for him, and a decent but unremarkable two-year contract. A few years earlier I might have gotten double or triple those sums, but these were tight times. Most owners today prefer to pass up bonus babies with high price tags in favor of experienced players they can get in trades with other clubs. But I figured that if Willie coruscated in the major leagues as he'd done in the minors, maybe copping Rookie of the Year honors or something, he'd be able to write his own ticket when his contract expired. It's best not to be greedy--until you can get away with it.
Now all that was but a dream of the past, exploded, to use a famous line, like a raisin in the sun.
When I looked back to the playing field, it was blurred with my own tears. A violent wave of fury shuddered through me. I renewed my vow to find the men who'd destroyed Willie's career if it was the last thing I did on earth...
All winter long the air over the world of professional baseball had been acrid with dissension as negotiations over renewal of the contract between the owners and the Players Association broke down and finally broke off. There had been strikes in sports before, some more serious than others, but even as early as November, when the negotiators began their ritual of sparring and boasts to the press, you could see an ugly confrontation shaping up. There was none of the levity that usually attends the preliminaries, none of the easy confidence in a quick settlement, no sense of common ground, none of the extravagant demands made by cynical bargainers who expect to get only half of what they're asking. But Milton Blossom, director of labor relations for the owners, and Sam Metcalf, successor to Marvin Miller as head of the Players Association, had declared their positions with ominous, grim determination. When bargaining got under way in earnest after New Year's, it was clear that both groups meant what they said: they would not be budged.
Although that perennial favorite, the reserve clause, was a key issue, and some so-called freedom issues were on the agenda, too--freedom for players to dress, smoke, drink, and wench as they pleased on their own time--the nub of the conflict was, as always, money: higher starting salaries, bigger pensions, more medical benefits, bigger World Series shares, travel expenses, spring training allowances, dues checkoffs, and other fringe benefits. There was also a new demand, one that had been kicked around for years but never introduced seriously until now: the players wanted a percentage of every gate--a piece of the action, in other words.
Aside from the latter, all this was old news, and the public at large figured things would be worked out in the tried and true give-and-take of the bargaining table, as had been done in previous years. But knowledgeable insiders knew differently; they knew there could be no give-and-take this time, because there was nothing left to give, and nothing left to take.
It had been coming for a long time. Professional sports had expanded violently in the last decade. Not just baseball, but football, basketball, and hockey had swollen like dry sponges dropped in a pond. The leagues added new teams, new divisions, and new conferences. As if that wasn't enough, savvy promoters came along and added new leagues. And even that didn't seem to satisfy the gluttonous fans and the greedy promoters, so soon enterprising hustlers were pushing professional tennis, golf, boxing, soccer, horse-racing, auto-racing, dog-racing, jai-alai, lacrosse, team handball, roller derby, Canadian football, demolition derbies, frog-jumping contests, and marbles tournaments. And everyone behaved as if there were no tomorrow.
The salary wars unleashed in these go-go years stretched available funds precariously thin. Television networks were saturated with sports programming and were bitching louder and louder about how the hockey season ended almost two months after baseball season opened, and on any given weekend in early October you could take your choice of a baseball game, a football game, a basketball game, or a hockey game on the boob-tube. Finally they flatly refused to take on more sports programming for fear of viewer backlash. Nor was there any more money to be squeezed out of fans by raising ticket prices. Attendance had already dropped in all sports and even die-hard fans were vowing to boycott en masse--they'd actually formed an influential national lobby--if box office prices went up again.
These twin specters of overexpansion and overexposure had presided over the National Football League Players strike in 1974 and caused it to fizzle ridiculously. But this time they were joined by a third specter, and there was nothing ridiculous about it: inflation. The monster had consumed everything baseball players had gained in their 1972 settlement, and more. Players making high five-digit salaries were barely treading water, and those in the medium and lower range were actually suffering serious hardships, incredible as it sounded to the average sports-page reader.
So, the players had a legitimate grievance. But so did the owners, and so did the networks, and so did the fans. For the same ogre that was gobbling up the players' income was consuming everyone else's. The fact was, the cupboard was bare. But the players, still living in the dream world of a seller's market created in the recent years of plenty and unlimited growth, refused to believe it. And at length they struck...
Like just about every other players' agent, I maintained a neutral stance during the developing conflict. Few people appreciate both viewpoints as keenly as agents, dealing as we do with both owners and players every day. In fact, I had even more insight into the problem than most of my colleagues, having been both a player and, later, a front office executive for the Dallas Cowboys before getting into agenting. Naturally, I was rooting for the players, if for no other reason than the selfish one that more money for them meant higher commissions for me. But it would have been imprudent for me to express this sentiment publicly: owners have long memories. Besides, I don't hold much by group actions of any sort--a throwback, I guess, to the frontier individualism of my forebears. I represent one player at a time; two at a time is a conspiracy, three is a political party, and four or more is communism. I'm just not a political animal. My daddy used to say, sooner wave your dick at a hungry bear than get involved in politics.
And so when, on a rainy Tuesday morning in the second week of March, about ten days after the strike had begun, I got a call from Grover Bailey, the Commissioner of Baseball, inviting me to lunch, I felt an emotion far from the flattery I'd have felt on some other occasion. He'd said nothing more than that he wanted to talk to me about the strike, but that had been enough to slide a sharp dagger of apprehension into my guts. I not only didn't want to get involved, I didn't even want to be seen in the commissioner's presence at this critical time.
Even routinely, an agent constantly worries about getting the reputation of being a "management man," of siding with what players half-facetiously refer to as The Enemy. But now, with both sides digging trenches for a protracted and nasty quarrel, any fraternization with management (and say what you will, the Commissioner of Baseball represents management) could be misinterpreted by my clients and leave them with a lasting suspicion about where my sympathies lay. Luckily, Commissioner Bailey was sensitive enough to realize this and discreetly arranged for lunch not at his office or a public restaurant, but in a private room at the University Club on West 54th Street.
The University Club may have been considered the apex of neo-classical style when it was built, but its gloomy, dingy baroqueness seemed better suited for exhibiting pharaonic mummies than accommodating living members. The foyer in which I stood waiting for the security man to pass me through was an immense cube of smudged marbled space surrounded by thick columns and furnished with dismal green leather chairs and heavy tables. Overhead, ornate filigree twined around dull frescoes almost illegible with grime. I peered into a library the size of a tennis court, through whose double windows facing Fifth Avenue the cold light of rainy March scarcely illuminated the staid men reading the Wall Street Journal or conferring in funereal whispers in a corner. I felt an insane desire to rip out a fart--I don't mean a squeaker, but a big stentorian boomer that would rattle the chandeliers. I suppressed the urge and simply checked myself out in the large ormolu-framed mirror on the south wall.
I sighed at the sight of myself. Unfortunately, I was the same man who'd checked himself out in the mirror on his closet door earlier that morning. One always hopes that the angel who takes care of such things will one day capriciously transform one's face into that of a Robert Redford, but I had to content myself this afternoon with the same battered phiz I'd carried around for over thirty-five years. No, check that: it had been a very nice phiz until I started playing football, at which time my nose developed a curious affinity for other people's elbows, knuckles, and cleats. It had been set so many times it all but twitched lasciviously whenever I passed a doctor's office. Recently it had gotten knocked off center again in a somewhat belligerent exchange of views with a hockey player who thought I was making it with his wife. It made a clicking sound when I wiggled the cartilage with my fingers, but it had a great natural ridge for supporting sunglasses.
This unfortunate organ was the centerpiece of an otherwise pleasant face. My eyes are blue and generate a vacuous expression most of the time. This is a matter of policy, to make people think I'm a little slow on the uptake. It's always a good idea to make people underestimate you. Among the nicknames I've had--and "Bolt" is a magnet for nicknames--is "Sleeper," because I lulled opposing football players into thinking I had lead in my pants, then burned them with my 9.4 speed or turned them around with my fancy moves.
Topping this face is a carpet of tightly kinked blond hair which, I'm ninety percent certain, comes about because an ancestor of mine seduced a slave girl and claimed the issue as his own son, don't ask me why. This means I'm a tiny part Negro, which shouldn't make a difference. But when you're a Southerner, where a tiny part Negro makes you a hundred percent nigger, it plays an enormous part in fashioning your attitudes. Happily, for me at least, the attitudes it has fashioned are the kind I'm proud of, a sensitivity to and feeling of kinship with minority people, certainly no disadvantage when you're as intimately involved with athletes as I am.
Anyway, the rest of the package is a six-foot-three frame supporting one hundred ninety-five well-conditioned pounds draped in quiet but expensive slacks, open-collared sports shirt, and blazer. Except for the hair, the man in the mirror was of a type you can see in the box seats of any sporting event in the country.
The security guard hung up the phone and directed me to a bank of elevators on the west wall of the club, past the coat-check room where two bored boys in uniform watched me with arrogant eyes. I ascended to the seventh floor, stepped out onto a worn red carpet, and turned left until I found a door numbered 6. I tapped on it with one knuckle and pushed it open when I heard a muffled invitation.
I entered a large paneled room hung with nineteenth-century fox-hunting engravings. In the middle of the room stood a round dinner table set with two places in sparkling Spode, crystal, and sterling. Against one wall was a magnificent Regency sideboard waxed to a fare-thee-well, and beside it, a low cocktail table with four leather chairs. In one of these sat Grover Bailey, the Commissioner of Baseball.
He was drinking a Manhattan and reading the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. From the glower on his face I intuited he was scanning Dan Jenkins's caustic article on the strike. Without looking up, he said, "You still take bourbon and branch water, don't you, Dave?"
"Good memory, Commissioner."
A glossy-haired, tuxedo-clad man whom I hadn't noticed behind me flashed across the room to a fully stocked liquor caddy, and a moment later offered me my drink on a little silver tray. I stood waiting for Bailey to finish the article. I knew he wasn't being rude. Rather, he was totally absorbed and, from what I could gather, not a little ticked off. I'd have thought that by now the commissioner would have grown a hide impervious to criticism, but Jenkins had really keelhauled him in the article, laying the blame squarely on his shoulders for not jawboning both sides into coming to terms. Bailey's predecessor, Bowie Kuhn, by consensus an ineffective administrator, would have rolled with Jenkins's punch, but Bailey prided himself in being a strong man, if not exactly a czar, and the charge of passiveness must have stung him bad.
He slapped the magazine shut and dropped it heavily on the table, emptied the rest of his drink down his throat, and signaled the waiter for a refill as he rose to shake my hand. "Now I know how Abraham Lincoln felt," he sighed, gesturing at the magazine.
I was tempted to extend the metaphor with a joke about freeing the slaves--"slavery" being the current pet propaganda word of the striking ballplayer--but thought better of it after a glance at his stern and humorless eyes. The commissioner was in no mood for jocularity.
Our waiter returned with the commissioner's drink and we settled into the leather chairs, which made long whistles as the air squeezed through seams in the upholstery. Bailey's cushion had a higher pitch than mine, because he was heavier by perhaps fifty pounds. Not plump, exactly, because he was a tall and big-boned man, but from the way his stomach bulged over his trousers when he was in a seated position, I could see that his muscles found it difficult to contain his bulk as they must have once. He had a square face with thin, sandy hair, a prominent nose, a wide mouth canopied by a fuzzy red mustache, and intelligent eyes. Formerly a captain of industry--I think he made a fortune in real estate--then owner of a short-lived and ill-fated National League expansion club, the Charleston Privateers (now in its third incarnation in Tucson), he'd been the compromise choice of the owners when Kuhn stepped down. Then he'd double-crossed them by showing surprising forcefulness and innovation when he took office. I felt deeply sorry for him that he'd gotten so embroiled in this conflict before he'd built up enough clout to force both sides to resolve their differences. Given a little more time, he might have been a Pete Rozelle.
"I know you've done your best, Commissioner," I said.
We toyed with our drinks for a moment, then Bailey darted a look at the hovering presence of our waiter. "That'll be all for now, Eddie," he commanded. "I'll call you when we're ready to order."
"Very good, Mr. Bailey," Eddie said with a Scottish burr, disappearing through a door that presumably led to the kitchen.
"Well, Dave, how's business?"
How my business was was scarcely the purpose of this meeting, but whatever the purpose was, the commissioner was obviously averse to pouncing into it. I'd have to follow his scenario. "Better than ever, Commissioner. My client list seems to be doubling every year without my trying too hard. Of course, my overhead is doubling, too, but all in all, I can't complain."
"You get a lot of referrals."
"I guess I have a lot of satisfied customers. I started with a handful of football players a few years ago. Now I've got a gross of athletes."
He smiled. "Is that how you measure them, by the gross?"
"Some of my colleagues measure them by the pound, like meat on the hoof."
"I sometimes think..." He censored the thought and sipped his drink. "What do you think of the latest developments?"
"Which ones do you mean? Last time I heard, negotiations had broken down completely."
"I thought you'd heard. The owners announced today they are seriously considering canceling the season. Blossom's statement'll be in the Post this afternoon."
"Cancel the season," I sneered. "That'll be the day."
"Don't be so sure. They're in a very rank mood. Their backs are to the wall."
"But half of them would be ruined!"
"Never underestimate an owner's capacity for writing off losses. I sometimes think half these guys pray for losses, to offset the windfalls they make in their other businesses."
"I can't believe they're serious."
"Take it from me, they are. Sure, they'll lose money, a lot of money. And some of them will go under. But do you see what their strategy is?"
"Sure. It would be a decisive way of breaking the strength of the Players Association, maybe permanently."
"Exactly. The owners take a beating this year, but they're in the driver's seat forever after."
"The government would step in long before that happened."
"That's open to debate, Dave. Remember, baseball is the only professional sport not subject to federal antitrust statutes. The 1922 Supreme Court decision, reinforced by Toolson vs. New York Yankees in 1953 and the rejection of Curt Flood's suit a couple of years ago--hell, I don't have to run it down for you. But what they amount to, in a word, is that professional baseball is still technically a local sport, and the federal government doesn't have a law on its books that would sanction intervention."
I took a long tug on my drink. "That's pretty heavy."
"Very heavy, my friend, very heavy indeed."
What about arbitration?"
"Oh, we tried arbitration at an early stage. We brought in Lew Hillsdorf, who settled that garment workers' strike last winter. After two days he walked out, and do you know what he said to me? He said, 'They can both go fuck themselves.'" Bailey smiled for the first time.
"And a cooling-off period, what about that?"
"The players are against it. They remembered what happened in '74 in the NFL strike. The owners used the cooling-off period to break the strike. The baseball players won't get sucked into the same trap."
I finished my drink and went to the bar to fix myself another. "Christ, what ever happened to the simple days when baseball was just a game?"
"It never was just a game, if you know your history. The reserve clause was created in 1879, and baseball has been a business ever since."
I sat down heavily again. "You said 'developments,' in the plural. What's the other development?"
"The other is that the Players Association has signed a secret agreement with a nationwide labor union."
"What?" I almost spilled my drink.
"I found out about it last night. Sam Metcalf has been talking for weeks to two unions, the Federation of Skilled Workers and the United Craftsmen's Brotherhood. One of my ... er ... informants, has kept me abreast and reported that Metcalf had finalized a pact with Pinky Ryan of the FSW."
"What kind of pact?"
"Oh, what they call 'mutual interest.'"
"Meaning what, in plain English?"
"Meaning the possibility of sympathy strikes. Some of the other unions in Ryan's federation--he has skilled workers in steel, construction, and a few other important areas--could walk off the job in sympathy with baseball players."
"And vice versa!"
"And vice versa. Can you picture it, Dave? Baseball players sitting down mid-season because a bunch of riveters somewhere aren't getting a half-hour coffee break every morning?"
"I can picture it, I can picture it! But I'm still not convinced it's more than a gambit. Remember when there was talk a couple of years ago about athletes linking up with the Teamsters? That went nowhere fast."
"Yes, but largely because club owners fell in with the athletes' demands. Players in every professional sport have made fantastic gains in the last decade, so they haven't had to resort to outside muscle. This time, it's a different story. A very different story." He closed his eyes a moment and shuddered. "Shall we order lunch?"
Lunch was a slab of roast beef as thick as a dictionary and softer than wet tissue, borne over the gullet on a stream of robust Mouton Cadet bottled, in Bailey's phrase, when Ford Frick was commissioner. The conversation became general and chatty, and Bailey avoided the subject of the strike by miles, like the leader of an expedition skirting a malarial swamp. Yet I had a feeling that by ignoring it altogether, he was foisting it on my attention, compelling me to wonder where, in this welter of gossip and anecdotes and locker-room jokes, was the point of this meeting.
I also had a sense of being weighed and measured, as if for some special task. But as I couldn't fathom what that might be, I just went along, quipping and yarning and pretending I lunched with the commissioner every day of the week. Bailey's eyes expressed nothing but cordiality, but I knew he was gathering and filtering impressions and molding them into an opinion. I was molding an opinion of my own: that this was a very, very shrewd man.
Dessert (rum-laced mousse), coffee (espresso), wine (a silky port), brandy (Armagnac), and cigar (Cuban), and I was climbing the wall with curiosity.
Then it came, softly and subtly, like a leaf of notepaper drifting to the ground.
About a quarter of the way down his cigar, Bailey cleared his throat and said, "We talked about referrals before."
"I was referred to you, too."
I looked at him blankly. "Beg your pardon?"
"I've been told," he said, "that you can get a certain kind of job done."
I looked at him steadily, hoping I didn't look as fatuous as I felt, but I really had to confess I didn't have clue one as to what he was talking about.
"I'm referring to jobs you did for Niles Lauritzen and Vincent Sturdevant."
The clouds began to part. Niles Lauritzen and Vincent Sturdevant were, respectively, commissioner of the American Basketball Association and president of the National Hockey League. The "certain kind of job" Bailey alluded to referred to a couple of--for want of a better phrase--undercover detective assignments I'd undertaken for them. It had all started when a client I'd just signed, basketball leviathan Richie Sadler, was abducted and I had to find him and bring him back before it hit the headlines. I did it, too, though at considerable cost: my face, nuts, and other choice parts had to go into drydock for refitting.
And then when, some time later, the National Hockey League required somebody to keep the lid on a gambling scandal that threatened to befoul the sacred name of professional hockey, Niles Lauritzen had commended me to Vincent Sturdevant as a skillful, discreet operative. The fact that I accomplished that mission, too--though not, once again, without taking some hard knocks--apparently enhanced my reputation. And now, with Commissioner Bailey hinting at some similar assignment, I realized that what had started, for me, as an extracurricular activity was rapidly becoming a semi-official function. Need a troubleshooter? Can't go to your regulars? Bring in Dave Bolt.
There is substantial doubt in my mind as to the accuracy of the adjectives "skillful" and "discreet" applied to my handling of those two situations. Looking back at them, I see a bumbling amateur playing Junior G-Man in a very high-stake game, using his instincts, a little cleverness and fast-talk, one or two head-fakes and a whole lot of trial-and-error groping, and succeeding more in spite of than because of himself. Aspiring private eyes seeking lessons in how not to solve crimes would find it most rewarding to study my procedures, if they're even worthy of that term. I made every mistake in the books, got myself thrashed resoundingly on several occasions, and prevailed only because luck was smiling on me that day. But I suppose that Commissioner Bailey, like every other executive in the wonderful world of sports, had read no further than the bottom line where it said He Got The Job Done, and that was good enough for him.
The clouds had begun to part, although I was still in the dark about what he was getting at. But I felt another surge of anxiety coming on. An instinct told me I was not going to like what he said, and not just because I don't particularly enjoy these secret service gigs. Enjoy them or not, I do them out of a combination of duty, love of professional sports and the people who populate them, and money. But if Bailey's proposition had to do with the strike--and what else could it have to do with?--it was hard for me to conceive a way of going along with it without ending up on either the owners' shitlist, the players', or both.
So, in the moment following Bailey's statement, I hastily erected a fortress of objections, excuses, and demurrers against anything he might ask me to do. When the last stone was in place, I finally said, "What seems to be the problem, Commissioner?"
He tamped a fine white ash into the marble ashtray on the cocktail table. "I'm deeply concerned about this linkup between the Players Association and the Federation of Skilled Workers. No, not just for the reasons we discussed before--though God knows those are sufficient. What concerns me is that the FSW may be infiltrated by criminal elements."
I nodded thoughtfully. "You have evidence?"
"No, nothing concrete. Just some rumors based on certain incidents."
"What kind of incidents?"
"Oh, you know, the usual things one can expect from an aggressive young union organizing shops and treading on the toes of management, workers, other unions."
"You mean, strong-arm tactics, sabotage, like that?"
"And you want concrete evidence?"
He nodded. "If the FSW is subject to underworld influence, a coalition with the Players Association could be disastrous. The mob would have a hook right up professional baseball's giggy where we'd never be able to pull it out. The leverage they could assert--well, it's frightening to contemplate." As if to emphasize the frightful nature of his contemplation, he tossed an inch of Armagnac down his throat. You just don't do that to Armagnac.
"So what you want me to do is get the goods on this union," I said.
"If there are goods to get. Let me make my position perfectly clear, to use a well-worn phrase. I am opposed to any alignment between the players and any union other than their own Association. However, I would not intercede if the rank-and-file of ballplayers voted ultimately in favor of such an alignment, unless--unless there was evidence of criminal involvement in that union. Then I not only would intercede, I would fight it with every ounce of energy I have. So I'm keeping an open mind until I have all my information. And I want you to gather that information for me. How you do it is your business. I'll of course place the complete financial and manpower resources of my office at your disposal." He dropped his hands limply into his lap, as if the effort of coming out with the proposition had exhausted him.
I was slumped in my chair gazing bemusedly at the ceiling, and I hoped I gave Bailey the impression of giving his proposition the most serious consideration. Actually, I'd already made up my mind to reject it.
"I would not, you know, expect you to do this for free," Bailey said, making sure I was weighing all factors on my scale. "In fact--"
I cut him off with a wave of the hand, feeling a little embarrassed. I knew he'd be generous; there was no need to put him in the position of supplicant. "Tell me, Commissioner, why me? I know you have your own security staff."
"That's just it. Dave, whether you believe it or not, I'm trying to build an image of bipartisanship for my administration. I want the players to feel I'm as much for them as I am for their bosses. If I haven't acted more forcefully up to now--and this is something Dan Jenkins failed to understand," he interjected, toeing the Sports Illustrated on the table like a hideous insect, "it's because I'm desperately eager to shake off the reputation this office has for being a branch of management. Do you see what I'm getting at? An official investigation of the Federation would be interpreted as an attempt to smear the Players Association and break the strike. Whereas if it were undertaken by you..." He grappled for words. "You are one of the few people in professional sports who have the unequivocal respect of both sides. You're a fair man, a straight-shooter."
I sighed. "Yes, Commissioner. And that's precisely why I have to turn your offer down."
He blinked and seemed to have difficulty catching his breath.
"What do you suppose," I said, "would happen to my own reputation for bipartisanship if my investigation was responsible for breaking the players' strike?"
He pounded his palm with his fist. "But Dave, my aim is not to break the strike. It's to keep this sport clean and above reproach."
"You know that, and I know that. But we also know that the same hotheads among the strikers who would accuse you of being a stalking-horse for the owners would accuse me. And I don't have to tell you what happens to an agent who comes to be known as a stalking-horse for the owners."
"I don't think that would happen," he said halfheartedly. The fact that that was the strongest argument he could muster was damning proof of his own serious doubts. He recognized this himself, exhaling languorously. "Oh well, it was worth a try."
"I'm really sorry, Commissioner. The last thing I want to do is add to your burden."
He looked at me tiredly and got to his feet with another heavy expiration of breath. "My burden," he muttered. Then he rallied with a smile. "If you weren't a goddam Reb, you'd have more sympathy for the Abe Lincolns of this world."
I raised both hands. "This is one civil war I'm staying neutral for, Commissioner."
"You can try, but civil wars suck everybody into them sooner or later," the history buff reminded me.
I laughed. But within a week that remark would come back to bite me.