"Hey, asshole! When're you gonna start throwing a breaking ball that actually breaks?"
I looked over at Gene. His face had already turned beet red and it was only the third inning.
"Come on," I said, "the Royals are only down by a run, there's a runner on first and two out. Can't you save it until they're really in trouble?"
Gene looked at me like I had just escaped from Mars.
"First of all, they are already in trouble. Look at that fastball. It's ten miles slower than it should be. Never mind that what it should be is something Brewer couldn't accomplish five years ago, let alone now."
He had a point.
I didn't normally spend my Saturday afternoons at the ballpark, but a hot prospect at third base—somebody Rivera, the name escapes me now—had just been signed by the Dodgers a couple of weeks before. Their roster was booked up so he had to pay his dues for the farm team. Not that long ago, said team, the Montreal Royals, was great in its own right. I'll never forget Opening Day, 1946: twenty-two thousand screaming fans packed into Delormier Stadium to watch the new phenom Jackie Robinson. I was only eight, but I never forgot the thrill of Jackie's first appearance at the plate. Confident, smooth, and boy, he swung the bat like no one I'd seen before or after him.
Ten years later and things were different. Delormier had just been saved from bankruptcy, but only barely. The Royals couldn't get twenty-two hundred fans to show up. This particular afternoon, only a few dozen souls scattered themselves amongst the bleacher seats.
One of them was Gene Krupp. I didn't like him much, to be frank. He was loud, arrogant, and full of himself. But if I needed to get to a ballgame, he had something I didn't: a car. We'd met the previous year at the YMCA. At the time I was the office boy, making just enough cash so I could go to university once the summer was over. I never found out exactly why Gene spent so much time at the Y, but never thought to question his presence.
Everybody there knew him. He was the guy who had a little something for "joint pain," or if he didn't, knew where you could get it. He was short and fat and old but never stopped talking about the women he'd picked up the night before. We believed him because a girl would come by from time to time to visit, to smile at Gene in that special way.
His main talent was information. Although none of us found out how he did it, Gene always knew every little secret about the Royals' players, and the dirtier the secrets, the better. One time, offhandedly, he shared with my best friend Bobby and me that he'd seen Jack DeWeese leave a downtown motel room with a hot little number, most definitely not his wife. Gene told that story with extra glee because DeWeese went on and on in the papers about the good Christian life he led, setting an example for his young children.
Gene could have kept his penchant for information-gathering private, but that wasn't enough. Instead, he shared his tidbits at the ballpark, while the game was in progress.
The first time I heard Gene heckle a player, I almost put my hand over his mouth. It wasn't much of an insult, just Gene mocking the size of the batter's cojones. I simply hadn't been prepared for the fact that the entire stadium could hear the insult. Gene's voice was that loud. People laughed, and kept laughing as the jeers became increasingly nasty as the game went on.
One time I asked him why.
"Because like any good story, you have to save the best part for last," he said. Then, not three seconds later, Gene heckled the relief pitcher who hadn't been providing much relief; the poor guy had just given up a three-run homer two batters before.
I never asked the obvious: why didn't he ever get insulted back? There were some very good reasons why Gene was never thrown out of the stadium, or threatened by a player, coach or manager. First, Gene never heckled anyone with a falsehood. If the catcher was sleeping with the third base coach's wife, and Gene knew about it, this news was fair game. If the shortstop thought he should be in the major leagues already in spite of an 0-for-22 slump, Gene let the guy have it.
Second, Gene had a code of sorts. He never involved the players' kids in his taunts, and never leveled his insults at anyone except the person he was actually heckling. In other words, he never said anything unkind about the third base coach's wife, even if the entire crowd knew she'd slept with half of the starting lineup and a good portion of the bench.
Finally, in a crowd that grew increasingly thin with each passing Saturday, Gene's insults were something to look forward to. The man came up with some gems, especially on the fly.
One time he'd started in with his usual bit, heckling a new arrival heralded as "the next big thing" even though, judging by his performance that day, the label was a serious exaggeration.
"Where'd you get those chicken legs? Branch Rickey's shelling out five figures for your sorry legs? What a fucking waste of money!"
The arrival—he had a name, but I've long since forgotten it—looked up at the stands and glared. Gene knew he had the guy. The smart ones kept to themselves and never acknowledged any heckling.
"Yeah, I mean you!" Gene boomed. "We're paying good money to see what you can do, and you can't do shit. Get the hell outta here!"
The crowd around us laughed. Gene was in his element. Then the heckled player spoke. Rather, he yelled.
"No, you get the hell outta here! You don't like what I do, go home, fat fuck!"
The crowd became quiet. Gene rarely got sassed back, after all. People didn't pay their dollar and a quarter just for the game; they wanted to be entertained, and when the Royals were losing week in and week out, any entertainment to be had kept the few remaining fans in their seats on a regular basis.
A full five seconds passed before Gene responded.
"Yeah, I may be a fat fuck. But I'm putting on a much better show than you are and it's not costing the club anything close to 50 grand."
Everybody broke up. The player's face turned several shades of red. He gave up all hope of finding a good response after that, and struck out three more times that afternoon. He never played for the Royals again.
That was the problem with a minor league team. The good players never stayed long because the main club would call them up the minute they got hot. The truly awful players, the ones that the bleacher-dwellers laughed at, got their walking papers fairly quickly. It was hard to stay attached to a player knowing he wouldn't stick around. Still, there were exceptions.
Sometimes a ballplayer popped up with the Royals every year or two, first trying desperately to make the Dodgers, then later to regain some shred of past glory. That was the case with Tim Brewer. Eight years ago he'd had some talent, a ninety mile-an-hour fastball, and a decent looking face. Three stints in the minor leagues later, he didn't have much at all except sagging jowls. Gene was right. His pitches were much slower than before. Brewer was lucky he even had a job in the minors.
He'd also been a target for Gene's insults over the years, but only in the last few weeks had they become particularly vitriolic. The last time Brewer started, I asked Gene what the deal was. The heckling seemed to hint at something, especially since Gene kept repeating the name "Velda" during the game.
Instead of answering, Gene smiled. I didn't press him for more.
This Saturday, I was doing my best to ignore everything but Rivera. This kid—he couldn't have been more than nineteen—ran fast, fielded well, and definitely had a future. I rejoiced that I could actually see him once before the inevitable callup to the majors. Because Rivera got a single his first at-bat and drew a walk his second plate appearance, Gene left him alone.
The same couldn't be said for Brewer. The Royals were only down a run, but that changed after the runner stole second and the next guy hit an RBI double. Things didn't look good.
In the fifth inning, when Brewer threw a changeup so slow it was slammed into the right-field bleachers, Gene began anew.
"That changeup's hanging up more than your dick! That's really gonna impress Velda!"
Brewer didn't respond, but the next batter got a 1-2 curveball that ended up in the dirt.
"Aw, didn't like what I said the last time? Guess you're getting cold feet then, limp dick! That'll really impress your woman."
"But who is she?" I whispered, "Who's Velda?"
"Shut up, kid," Gene barked. "I'm busy."
I shut up. I knew the punchline was coming soon, especially as Brewer's face looked ready to ignite.
"That sorry ass limp dick of yours won't just impress your girl, it'll impress her husband and your wife, too! Congratulations, Brewer, you've managed to mess up two marriages for the price of one!"
But Gene wasn't finished. For whatever reason, he broke one of his cardinal rules.
"Some example you're all setting for your lovely daughters, arentcha? Maybe you might want to lock her up at home now that Kenley's making eyes at her. I hadn't thought he liked young meat."
We sat a good fifteen rows up from home plate, but that didn't matter to Brewer, who completely ignored the player leaving the on-deck circle. Brewer focused on one thing and one thing alone. Or should I say, one man.
I heard the baseball whiz upward before I saw it. Next thing I knew, Gene was sprawled along the aisle, blood gushing from the right side of his forehead.
"Shit!" I yelled, "Somebody get a doctor!"
The ten or so guys nearest us crowded round as somebody else ran out of the stands to get help. I caught a glance at Brewer in the stadium below, but he wasn't there anymore. Then I heard the commotion.
"Hey kid," Gene slurred, "my head kinda hurts."
He didn't look good at all. His eyes were pointed in two different directions and his mouth was tender and swollen. I'd never seen a man die before and I didn't particularly want to now.
Then, amazingly, he laughed.
"Relax, kid, I ain't dead yet. Besides, look who's here."
It was Brewer, and he was steaming mad. As soon as he saw Gene's prone form, he pounced.
"You fucking asshole, you arrogant sorry son of a bitch! How could you bring Martha into this? I always knew you hated me but you sorry fuck!"
As soon as Brewer's hands went around Gene's throat, the small crowd swarmed. The throttling didn't last more than five seconds but it was far too long. I looked at Gene and he gazed blankly at me.
Gene had one last parting shot.
"If I had to break a rule, I'm glad I only did it once."
The doctor showed up just in time to pronounce Gene Krupp dead.
The two teams finished the game, but I doubt anyone remembers who won or lost. Although Tim Brewer was charged with manslaughter, the charges didn't really stick. There were five hundred witnesses to Gene's goading, which was plenty enough motive for the judge to give Brewer a slap on the wrist. For a while, I didn't hear much about him, but as I flipped channels late one night some years back I caught him hawking some Ginsu knives. A couple of years later, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Royals folded.
I never did see another baseball game after that.
About the author:
Sarah Weinman fell in love with baseball as a child when she attended her first spring training game in Florida at the age of three. This love was cemented as a Blue Jays and Expos fan in the mid 1980s, but lessened considerably by the Strike. She is still bitterly upset that the Jays blew the 1985 playoffs and the 1987 division. She spends her time these days delving into literary and crime fiction matters at her weblog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.