Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Shack

Ghost hunting would save their relationship. It would bring back that old spark, that old tickle of anticipation Jeff and Mary had when they first met. They found an old house in the woods off Highway 2, widely assumed to be involved somehow in a string of disappearances. Jeff didn’t speak as he drove, his hands followed the road.

Urban Legends: The Hammer

The Hammer

Ken Hamlin felt dizzy after the hit. He sat on the turf under the roar of thousands cheering his brutalization of Saints wide receiver Donte Stallworth. Stallworth’s helmet lay a few feet away from him, and for a moment Hamlin thought Stallworth’s head was severed, lying in a pool of blood under the glaring lights. Hamlin thought about what he heard Junior Seau say, “If I can feel some dizziness, I know that guy is feeling double that.” Hamlin got up with the help of fellow defensive back Marcus Trufant, who yelled, “You knocked the shit outta him, cuz,” over the crowd. The Saints training staff came over to help the cringing Stallworth to his feet. Hamlin went over to make sure his victim still had his head. He wanted to say something to Stallworth, but he bit his mouth guard instead. Their eyes met briefly as Stallworth staggered off the field, a trainer under each arm. Stallworth’s pupils dominated almost all of his eyes. Where Hamlin expected malice, he only saw a dazed look. He wanted to see forgiveness in the empty stare, but it wasn’t there.
The vicious hit was replayed that evening on Sportscenter, and acted as an official proclamation of Hamlin’s stardom. The Seahawks coaches fostered his dark passion for causing injury. They nicknamed him “The Hammer” and the name was soon picked up by the Seattle media. A legend was born.
A nine-year-old boy named Clyde Donaldson and his friends found a body in Seward Park with several gunshot wounds to the chest, his face fully intact and the same, they said, as the face they saw on the news. When they led Seattle’s finest to the spot where they saw the body—a two mile hike uphill through thick Seward Park forest—it was gone. All they found was a spot of dark blood slowly washing away in the rain.
The brutality Hamlin displayed on the field never bled into his “real” life until one wet fall night in Seattle.
After a home win early in the 2005 season—a year after his hit on Donte Stallworth— Ken Hamlin and his girlfriend began their departure from a downtown nightclub. Hamlin played well, and his bruises were numb from the bath he took after the game. He tried to shoulder past a tall man who seemed to intentionally block his path.
The man in his way was Troy Williamson, the co-owner of a small local record label, Black Dahlia Records. He had lost a promising young rap star who called himself Spaceman earlier that day. Williamson was convinced that Spaceman’s gritty powerhouse song, “I Got That” would push his label into the national spotlight. The song hadn’t been released yet, but Williamson knew gold when he saw it. Whoever signed Spaceman would lead their label to greatness. Williamson knew his window of opportunity had closed on his fingers. Despite his efforts at control, the artist ultimately controlled the product. Their art and their personalities were what the fans paid for. Williamson had dreams of being a rapper in his younger years, but slowly and painfully found himself talentless, and the shadow of that failure never left him.
Williamson did what he always did when frustrated. He went out to the club, drank as much as he could afford, and tried to cheat on his wife. He enjoyed the sense of power he felt when he slept with another woman. He had only been successful a few times, a bad percentage considering how often he felt hopeless, powerless, and alone. He stood in the doorway, flanked by security guards paying him no attention. He clutched his drink, trying to finish it quickly before he went outside to smoke, but the vodka tonic soured in his stomach. He checked his watch, as if waiting for an alarm clock to beep at a specific time and wake him from this nightmare. He turned around to find Hamlin the artist, the product, the talent, the millionaire attempting to push by him. He glared at Hamlin and did not move.
Despite the sighting of the body in Seward Park, no forensics team canvassed the forest, and no detective came near the case. It was based on the word of a nine year old, and if Hamlin was involved in any way, all the better the corpse went unseen in the woods.
Beside Williamson stood his business partner Freddy Jones. His system full of cocaine, he kept peeking around Williamson, flitting over one shoulder, then the other, looking for an escape to the rain drops flaring in the streetlights outside. His only place of sanctuary was the studio, where he created the best beats in the city. The problem with Jones, as Williamson knew all too well, was that his drug problem would never leave him, and the drugs so compounded his introvertedness that he would never succeed in the music business the way he should, considering his talent. Jones made the beat for Spaceman’s “I Got That”, a genius, multilayered track that would make heads nod across the country if Williamson could sign Spaceman and release the song. Jones normally avoided public spaces, but tonight Williamson coaxed him downtown with the promise of a mound of coke.
A man claiming to be Hamlin’s brother called several local Seattle television stations saying that Hamlin was involved in the killing. The police were unable to track him down. The call seemed to come from somewhere utterly beyond police jurisdiction.
Hamlin tried to shoulder past Williamson without really seeing him, his posse pushed Jones to the curtained wall. He politely suppressed his annoyance and said, “Excuse me”. But Williamson didn’t budge.
A young couple said they saw a man covered in blood wandering through Seward Park. They were on a trail heading into a clearing and they heard him singing a song they had never heard before. They glimpsed him through the foliage standing hunched over holding his midsection, staring at them, dripping blood. They remembered most of the words.
Among Hamlin’s posse was Joseph Peters, a childhood friend. Peters flew to Seattle from Memphis a few days earlier to see Hamlin play professional football for the first time. Hamlin and Peters were inseparable after a bizarre and terrifying incident when they were fifteen. They drove around drinking beer one muggy Memphis afternoon when Peters stopped his mindless coasting to pick up a kid Hamlin didn’t recognize. The kid gave them a few directions, then pulled a glock from his hoodie kangaroo pocket and fired three rounds at a pedestrian. Hamlin didn’t remember where the pedestrian was hit, only blood spraying on the sidewalk and the shooter’s laughter.
Hamlin’s brutal hit on Stallworth had reminded him of that day. He often thought about Peters’ friend when he was on the field. The memory generated anger in him, a pitiless fury that led him to his victims, the opposing players thinking they can score on him and make him a fool.
Williamson turned on Hamlin and told him to stop pushing. Hamlin repeated his wish to be excused, a familiar feeling of professionalized anger rising in his liver, an anger that his old college coach at Arkansas told him to nurture if he wanted to succeed in the NFL. An emotion he normally kept entirely contained in the thick white lines around the football field.
Tempers often flare up so quickly that those involved can’t recall all the escalations that lead to violence. The old anger Hamlin buried in his teenage years returned, this time uncontrolled. It felt like a new drug shot through him. Hamlin punched Williamson in the nose. The crowd of smokers cleared a path across the sidewalk to the street. Jones, who had somehow held off Hamlin’s crew, saw Williamson stagger back from Hamlin’s punch, his hand clasped to his broken nose. Jones, full of coke, energy, and strength, picked up a ‘no parking’ sign lying on the sidewalk and bashed Hamlin’s skull with it. The first blow knocked Hamlin off of his feet, and the second made an awful crunching sound.
Jones and Williamson escaped while Peters and the rest of Hamlin’s entourage crowded around the unconscious fallen star. Hamlin bled out of his ears on the pavement. That is what Hamlin’s girlfriend Laura Payton recalls most vividly, the blood leaking out of Hamlin’s ears into a widening rain divoted puddle. Minutes later howling police cars arrived with an ambulance in tow. Hamlin’s injuries were severe: a cracked skull, bruised brain tissue, a small blood clot, and a fractured hand from punching Williamson. He was in critical condition for three days.
An eyewitness told Seattle Police that she saw three men pull up to the Black Dahlia Records studio late one night. Two of them went in and came out supporting Freddy Jones between them. Jones appeared to be unconscious, according to the witness. When shown mugshots she recognized Joseph Peters. She was the last person to see Jones alive. When the police asked her to testify in trial, she refused and disappeared.
Hamlin sat out the Seahawks Super Bowl season after the altercation.
He walked out of Harborview hospital into the arms of Payton and his mother, who had flown to Seattle from Memphis to wait by her son.
She could tell her son had changed after the head trauma, as if some wiring had been jostled around. He seemed quieter. The pent up anger Hamlin used on the field seemed to lurk just under the surface of his eyes. He was unconscious for twenty-eight hours, and no one knows, not even Hamlin, what his mind was up to in its emergency state.
The first thing Peters noticed was the tapping. Hamlin would tap on his food tray. One fingernail against the hard plastic. He didn’t appear to notice, the finger seemed to tap on its own, as if trying desperately to send a message in Morse Code. He wouldn’t talk about the night in the club to his mother, whenever she asked she only got his eyes, which looked like they hid embers of anger behind their dark brown irises.
Peters listened to Hamlin’s muttering when his mother went to the hotel to sleep. Hamlin kept saying things like “disrespected me”. Peters listened.
When Hamlin was released, Peters didn’t contact him for several months. People said he returned to Memphis. What exactly Hamlin said to Peters remains a mystery, but one night Troy Williamson’s only friend Freddy Jones went missing.
Spaceman eventually signed with Black Dahlia Records. “I Got That” was never released. Jones’s body was never found, and Hamlin never spoke about the incident at the club again, nor will he say what he told Peters at the hospital.
Hikers sometimes are lost in Seward Park, especially in winter when darkness falls around four in the afternoon. They all find their way out, but some say they can hear someone rapping an unfamiliar song in the forest at night. Otherwise the dead man in Seward Park keeps to himself.

The Rain Cloud

The Rain Cloud
By the end of August Bellingham had almost dried up amidst its worst drought in over fifty years. The Bellingham Bells baseball team had flailed through the worst month in their history and fallen out of first place in the Summer League in an agonizing collapse. Only a win over the hated Tri City Bombers in the final game would save their season. The desert conditions on the baseball diamond—dirt from the infield swirled in the hot breeze—didn’t keep the entire town from the ballpark. They were there to watch the Bells give the ball and their chance at the playoffs to their best player, nineteen year old pitching phenom Marlin Diaz. Scouts said he had “great stuff”. He could throw a ninety-five mile an hour fastball with movement and a ninety mile an hour slider that tailed nastily out of the strike zone. Diaz was the greatest talent the town had ever seen.
Diaz began his warm up throws in front of a few early fans. They sniffed the pollen and lounged as best they could in the hot bleachers. A few of them glanced at an old man wandering around the parking lot down the third base line. The man was always seen alone. He glanced up at the horizon at regular intervals. Today a dark cloud loomed way out to the west, and he watched to see if it would come to him after months of thirst.
Ted Deweese watched Diaz from the stands as he delivered cheese fries to a couple in Bellingham Bells T-shirts. The park was on the outskirts of town in a large outdoor sports complex hacked from the weeds and forest long ago. Sun baked, empty farms stretched out endlessly to the north as the town petered out. Ted worked at the concessions stand. He lived alone on his dwindling savings and the meager wages he earned working Bells home games.
It seemed to Ted that the drought had reached its most miserable point of the summer. The field was widening streaks of brown, brittle grass that had succumbed to the county’s watering limits. The farmers couldn’t grow enough crops and the fishermen couldn’t catch the fish that inexplicably hid from their nets. With most of Bellingham’s workforce unemployed, the crowds at the ballpark swelled as the season wore on, and the air was rank with desperation.
The desire to see Diaz pitch before he inevitably moved on to the Mariners had grown to the point of nervous dread. He was Bellingham’s small piece of history. Every seat on the hot metal stands would be taken by the Bells faithful, their skin black, white, freckled, tanned, sunburned, and pitted with liver spots; but their heads and chests would all be emblazoned with the blue and green of the team jerseys and hats that sold out on Opening Day every year. The seats behind home plate for every Diaz game were hotly contested. The owner of a popular coffee shop downtown and landlord of about a third of the university’s student population got his face smashed the night before this final game over a ticket dispute.
Diaz tried to empty his mind and find his release point. His thoughts kept going back to his home in Venezuela; to his wife, his family; to his son and his strong grip. He tried not to feel the pressure they put on him from thousands of miles away, adding to the buzz from a town of strangers who hung on his every throw. They prayed to him and he couldn’t understand why. He hadn’t done anything yet. In the small field across the street a thin wisp of smoke emerged—a brush fire where someone had dropped a cigarette. He tried to become a machine made to throw the ball accurately with the correct speed and nothing more.
Ted went back to the concessions stand and deflected the stares of the teenage girls working there. He had started talking to himself in his room at night. Last night he held one side of an entire conversation about his life without realizing it until he had said what needed to say.
People waited for beer and a limited supply of overpriced bottled water in the long sweltering concessions line. The stand crouched under the stadium at the entrance from the parking lot. Petty arguments broke out in the line. A middle aged man in a dress shirt squabbled over line cutting with a mother and her two sons, squatters in an abandoned shack not far from the stadium.
Ted manned the old beige cash register. His runner, a girl named Kelsey Sloan, kept distracting him with her every movement in his peripheral vision. It seemed to Ted that Kelsey’s beauty increased with the temperature, and this evening her presence heated the breathless air around him. He was always astonished to see her after the team came back from a road trip and discover that she was more beautiful than how he remembered her. She was the only worker his age and Ted had only said a few words to her. Still he found himself waiting for her at work, sometimes showing up twenty minutes before he was scheduled. He often thought about her when he sat alone in his apartment. He couldn’t figure out how she entrapped him, but he didn’t act on his attraction. He caught her smiling at him as she breezed past to refill a soda.
A dust cloud rose from the line and blew into the concessions stand, adding a layer of grime to the workers’ wet skin. They watched the heat waves hanging in the parking lot through the high chain link fence. Their boss, an ex-lunch lady at the middle school, dismissed them due to a freezer malfunction, and to Ted’s relief she announced they would receive a full game’s pay. A few home playoff games and Ted could pay September’s rent, eat enough to live, and move. His plan depended on the Bells’ survival.
Ted counted his till down and headed out to the parking lot. He watched the old man linger by the fence with an unlit cigarette dangling from his dry lips. The cigarette bobbed up and down as the old man mumbled to himself. For the first time that summer Ted found that he couldn’t go home alone again to whisper to himself in his sweltering room. He heard the announcer reading the lineups, an undertone of anticipation in his voice. He didn’t see Kelsey leave. He turned around and headed back to the stands.
Ted squeezed into a seat in the seventh row as Diaz whapped the catcher’s glove with his final warm up toss and the catcher threw to second base.
The game began in the sweaty stadium. People stood in the aisles to watch, blocking the view of more filing in. The old man glanced now and then at the field, then back at the distant cloud, breathing smoke into the hot air.
Diaz wiped the sweat from his brow and hissed his first pitch into the catcher’s glove right on the corner, he thought, but the umpire only looked down the third base line as if avoiding Diaz’s stare. Ball one.
Diaz fired another effortless fastball at the same spot. Another ball. The count 2-0, Diaz grimaced. He had thrown that pitch in that exact spot a thousand times before and gotten the call. He took his glove off and twisted the ball between his two palms. Smoke thickened across the street. Fire trucks had arrived at the scene. The smell of burning brush intensified. Every breath from the crowd heated the air a little more.
Diaz whizzed a ball past the catcher in the dirt. The crowd squirmed. 3-0. His next pitch was high and inside and nicked the batter’s elbow. The catcher called time and trotted out to the mound.
Ted allowed himself a small sip from his water bottle. A few young boys pointed at the smoke column rising across the street and yelled to their mother, “Fire! Fire!”
People shaded their eyes palms out and squinted at the smoke. Farmers sitting on either side of Ted fidgeted on the bleachers.
The catcher was a white boy from Louisville called Moss. He spoke in a country twang that endeared him to his teammates and almost made them forget his intelligence. He adjusted the infield constantly. Moss told Diaz he ordered the infield to double play depth and the outfielders a shade in. The second baseman leaned to his left, but not too obviously, the batter had to think his grounder to the right side would slip through. Diaz nodded blankly at him, not listening. This information was unnecessary for Diaz, but Moss had to calm him down, stop the noxious frustration that rose inside him as fast as the smoke across the street. Moss felt the familiar frenzy building with the pressure to win. They both smelled the smoke and glanced at the hills across the street. It added to their sense of hurry, as if a fuse had been lit.
“No need to worry ‘bout the strike zone, throw yer pitches, he’ll give ‘em to ya,” Moss said as he returned to the plate.
Ted spotted Kelsey high in the stands. To his relief she appeared to be alone. He waved her over before he could doubt himself. She smiled and started to wade through the crowd.
The next batter grounded to the second baseman. He tossed the ball to the shortstop who seemed to catch it and side arm it to first in the same motion. He hopped out of the way of the base runner’s slide. The first baseman stretched for the throw ahead of the batter. Two down, bases cleared.
Ted secured a spot for Kelsey by leaning into an old man while the crowd stood and managed a mangled yell. A few fishermen in front of Ted shouted encouragement to Diaz. They kept standing even after Ted and Kelsey mumbled hello to each other and sat down. Kelsey’s perfume mingled with her sweat and the smoke.
They sat so that most of their forearms touched. He wished he could say something to her but the moment passed as Diaz struck the next batter out with a slider in the dirt and the crowd stood and cheered and Diaz walked slowly to the dugout.
A few field lights switched on and caught beams of dust and smoke in their rays. The old man in the parking lot paced the fence. He dropped his cigarette burnt to the filter and ground its waning life out with the methodic twisting of his knee, the ball of his foot focused on one precise spot. The crowd swelled. They squished closer together as batters meekly made outs. People took less water into their mouths as the game went on, trying to conserve the little they had, knowing that the concessions stand was closed. They breathed in the smoke and the dust and grew thirstier by the moment. 
The top of the fifth brought a turning point. A pesky Tri City hitter named Cone drew a leadoff walk on four pitches. He leaned over the plate a bit more than usual. Diaz slapped his glove after throwing ball four. The crowd stirred from their dehydrated trance.
“C’mon now, Diaz! C’mon now!” someone yelled.
“Where was that pitch, ump! C’mon!”
Kelsey told Ted about the first boy she kissed. “I didn’t like him that much, but I kissed him anyway,” she told him with her soft voice. “I was too tired to turn away from him. It was a day like today. It was supposed to be a memorable moment, you know?” She squinted at him, inviting him to share his first kiss memory with her, but instead of adding to the disappointment, Ted stayed silent and thought about her moment and tried to place himself at the lake in the past with her on that perfect day, the sun drying the lake water off their backs.
Another ball and Moss went to the mound. The sun was low and hot. The ground had an itchy feeling. Insects gathered just beneath the shriveled roots of the grass. An unconscious hum entered the air—millions of living things all committed to one rising action.
Moss gathered Diaz in a half hug, his arm around Diaz’s neck. Moss couldn’t hit well enough to make it to the big leagues and he knew it. He drank too much on road trips and listened to his brother tell him over the phone to come home to mother because he wouldn’t make the Mariners anyway, and she was all alone and kept forgetting things, and his brother couldn’t keep trying to look after her. But Moss had to keep playing. The field was a way of expressing himself. The way he commanded a game was the way a composer wrote music, the right moves came to him at the right time, like notes appearing on a staff. The manager made the lineup cards and talked to the bush league reporters, but Moss ran the team. Some big shot scouts noticed this and wanted Moss to be a coach or a minor league manager one day but Moss knew he was too quiet, that sometimes his fluid inspiration ran dry, and that he wouldn’t be in his safe house behind the plate. He feared his muse would leave him stranded in a big game, a game that would be retold, passed down.
The next batter was Wiley, the best hitter in the league. In all his anxiety, Ted couldn’t think of much to say to Kelsey, except to comment about the heat, and about the team—things she already knew. When she flashed him a glance with her green eyes, and he should have felt a brief and unsullied moment of communion, he only wondered what she felt about him.
The smoke had thickened and off in the distance the rain cloud inched closer from the west. The old man paced in his parking lot stronghold and glanced at it. He took a cigarette out and held it in his fingers, hesitating to put it between his lips. The length of his paces shortened. Ted could see his apprehension through the chain link fence, the seriousness in him. The cloud waited off in the distance watching the town. Top of the fifth in a scoreless tie, a man on in ninety-five degree heat, surrounded by townies rich and poor, all pouring themselves into the game, into each other. Ted fidgeted with the rest of the crowd; an unnamed restlessness infected them all. He wanted to turn to Kelsey and explain what he felt, but what would she say? The power of Diaz’s concentration was too great to put into words. His body ached when he thought about the game ending, Kelsey leaving without him, and returning alone to his apartment to talk to himself. He almost couldn’t stand it. Kelsey was more beautiful in that moment than any other time Ted could remember. Her long, light hair glowed in the dying sun.
Diaz had a knuckle ball in his arsenal that he threw three or four times a game. He decided to uncork one to Wiley on the next pitch. He shook off all of Moss’s signs, and Moss tensed up out of instinct. The pitch drifted in at about sixty miles an hour, wobbling left then right, and then breaking straight down. Wiley swung hard early and missed. Moss pounced on the ball to block it. The crowd shouted encouragement to Diaz.
Diaz reared back and fired a swerving fireball down and in. Wiley managed to slice the ball in front of the right fielder Homer. Cone decided in that hot, buzzing moment to try first to third. He gathered speed and stride as he rounded second.
Moss cursed under his breath as he tore off his mask and tossed it behind him. He ran up the third base line to back up the throw. Sure enough, Homer’s surprised arm slung the ball past the cutoff man, too low for the third baseman to field. Moss fell to his knees and knocked it down. The crowd murmured to themselves, unsure of whether to shout encouragement or keep silent. Runners at the corners, nobody out. Moss looked Wiley back to the bag at first.
Martinez walked to the plate. They weren’t going to double Martinez up even if he hit it on the ground. But Moss knew even before he looked at his manager for the sign that he would give up the run for a double play. It wasn’t about strategy. The game is about rules and respect. A wise manager is never afraid and he never breaks character. He does what is expected of him, or he answers for his violation of tradition later.
Martinez dug in and swung his bat around and waited. The crowd stirred again. Ted wanted to take Kelsey’s hand in his, as if they were at church chanting a prayer, but he held back and folded his sweaty palms together, rocking on the seat slightly. He glanced at Kelsey. To his surprise she glanced back and gave him a slight smile. This calmed him for a moment but only brought more anxiety in the moments that followed. Diaz threw another ball. More grumblings from the crowd under the cloudless hot sky. “C’mon now, Diaz! C’mon now!” Ted yelled. The encouragement slipped out of his chest unexpectedly, as if whoever he talked to at night spoke through him. Ted looked sheepishly at Kelsey. To his surprise she yelled at Diaz as well, her voice strong and clear.
Moss knew another trip to the mound would be fruitless but the manager would want one if Diaz threw one more pitch out of the strike zone. He had no choice but to put one finger down and hope Diaz blew one by Martinez.
The pitch jumped out of Diaz’s hand and tailed like a sparrow off the plate inside. Martinez swung and missed badly. The crowd breathed a momentary sigh of relief. The haze from the fire thickened. Diaz threw another fastball that spun off the outside edge of the plate. Martinez slapped it into the right field gap. One run scored, Wiley rounded third and ran home as Martinez beat the throw to second. Bellingham trailed 2-0.
Diaz slapped his mitt again in frustration. He cursed and paced the mound. He picked his shirt from his sweaty chest and wiped his forehead and his hairless cheeks with it. For a moment he was only a baseball cap and a jersey.
Moss and the pitching coach went out to the mound to calm Diaz. He nodded tight-lipped at everything the pitching coach and Moss said and they walked back to their rightful places as the umpire came out to break up the meeting.
“Hey ump, where my pitches at?” Diaz said.
The umpire looked at Diaz, somewhat surprised. “They’re inside,” he said solemnly and turned away.
“Sometimes they are, but not today, ump. Not today.”
“You watch your mouth, kid. And I don’t wanna see none of your body language out here anymore either.”
The ump faced him, reddening, sweating.
“Get yourself a strike zone, man. That’s all I’m sayin’,” said Diaz.
“One more word and you’re outta here. Too damn hot to argue balls and stikes with you kids.”
Diaz nodded and stared at the umpire, old and wrinkled and grumpy from years of judging balls and strikes, safe and out, fair and foul.
The next pitch appeared to catch the inside corner but the umpire only stood and stared back at Diaz. Diaz snapped the return throw into his glove and paced the mound again like the old man in the parking lot. He was nervous and writhing with anger, but he refused to show the umpire his wincing face. The shortstop and the second baseman saw and said encouraging words to him. He stopped pacing, still off the mound a few feet, and saw the rain cloud shyly approaching. It could still dissipate or miss the town. The crowd watched him with their sweaty faces smeared with dust and grime. It was at this moment he knew he will always be a baseball player, not a kid who plays baseball. It wasn’t a game for him, it was his life. The thought calmed him. He sighed, taking a huge but familiar burden onto his shoulders. Then he returned to the mound. He had to throw a pitch before he thought too much about his arm cooling down.
Diaz fired a strike down the middle. He struck out the side on eight more pitches and walked back to the dugout in a hard determined strut. Ted released Kelsey’s hand and exhaled. The moment was over, and the Bells and Bellingham were down but still alive.
In the bottom of the inning Moss led off and coaxed a walk. He hit ninth. The first and second hitters in the order both struck out. Homer smoked a single into right field. Diaz walked to the plate with two on and two out. Kelsey stood, her hands clapping and her clear voice joining the chorus of cheers from the rest of the crowd as everyone in the bleachers rose with her. Ted glanced around and stood. They watched the best chance Diaz and the Bells had to save the town. Diaz didn’t have the patience to be a consistent hitter, but his strength alone put him in the clean-up spot in the order. The first pitch came into his wheelhouse and he crushed it. As soon as the ball cracked the bat, the crowd held its breath and squinted at the ball’s flight through the smoke and sun. The center fielder wandered back and looked up. The crowd erupted as Diaz circled the bases. Ted and Kelsey hugged each other in utter joy the moment they realized the game was not over, and they were still alive with a story to tell. When they all sat back down, hope sprang into Ted’s being. He relaxed and looked at Kelsey and they laughed together while their shoulders touched.
By the end of the eighth inning the crowd was dry and nervous and the Bells still led 3-2. Kelsey’s shoulder and side still pressed up against his in the malaise of the bleachers. The inning before he had managed some more small talk with her. He learned where she was from, where she had gone to school, what the next step in her life would be.
A few townies called out to Diaz while he threw his warm up tosses. He had just convinced the manager to let him stay in the game, and the crowd knew he stayed in for them. Diaz seemed to know what was going to happen already and it was impossible for the manager to take him out, because fate had decided otherwise. The manager knew there was too much sweat invested. Diaz had to leave it all on the line.
The old man in the parking lot sat under a tree whose limbs hung over a small patch of brown grass. He had been chain smoking for the past few innings and no one seemed to notice him anymore.
Wiley led off. Diaz hurled a fastball past his heavy swing. Wiley staggered out of the batter’s box and the crowd “Ooooh”ed and “Aaahh”ed behind him, relieved that his mighty rip didn’t connect with the ball.
An 0-1 pitch to Wiley and he lifted it to deep center. For a moment the crowd choked in despair. The center fielder turned and ran back to the wall, put his bare hand on the padding, and made the catch. The crowd breathed and grew restless again. Diaz could feel the velocity coming off his fastball like a drug losing its potency. The sun was a red blight now in endless sunset and gnats rioted in clouds, curiously undeterred by the smoke that made fans cough in the stands.
Martinez stood at the plate. Moss put down one finger, hoping Diaz would put the ball down the middle and dare Martinez to be the hero in the dry smoky heat. The pitch bounced off Martinez’s toe. He crumpled for a moment, holding his foot as if that would stop the pain, then before the trainer could reach him, he hopped off to first base, glaring at Diaz.
The next batter worked the count full and the smoke became so thick and suffocating that when Martinez took off for second, Moss rose and threw into nothingness. Martinez was safe, but the batter struck out.
Moss knew Martinez would try for third. He couldn’t see far enough to throw him out. He ordered a fastball and as soon as his mitt popped he came up throwing, but it was off line and Martinez slid safely ninety feet from a tie game.
A knot of uncertainty tightened in Ted. He felt the same feeling of nervous dread coming from Kelsey, but she didn’t show it, and this comforted him. She stood with her arms folded in the smoky sun, sweat covering her face. Her eyes narrowed, focusing all of her energy on Diaz. The crowd around them buzzed. People elbowed each other for precious air. Diaz glanced quickly at the crowd and knew he had to throw the knuckler. He would end the game right now. He spat out smoke and coughed. The town wouldn’t survive much longer.
Diaz called Moss to the mound. Diaz spoke into his glove. “I’m throwing the knuckler.”
Moss nodded.
For a moment their thoughts rushed together like the smoke billowing around them. Their widely different futures fused into the singular fate of that moment which would be relived through the stories the fans told each other and their children. Bellingham’s fate rested on their shoulders, and they knew the rest of their lives would be different after the next pitch. Maybe for better, maybe for worse. Moss returned to the plate.
Diaz wound up and lobbed the knuckler. The ball drifted through the smoke as the old man in the parking lot stood up and saw the cloud growing in the sky, heading straight for him, as if he had called it like he used to call his old dog. A breeze in his face, but it could veer north at any moment. He couldn’t tell anyone yet. It hung listlessly, as if still deciding whether or not to dump its precious payload. The crowd rose again and Ted stood beside Kelsey and the two of them forgot who they were. He found his arm around her shoulders and hers around his waist.
The batter chopped the ball up the third base line. Diaz reached the ball while Martinez sprinted past him. Diaz couldn’t see first base, so he underhanded it to Moss, who caught the ball with his chest. Martinez lowered his shoulder into Moss and they collided. They laid tangled on home plate in the dust and smoke. Moss broke his shoulder on the play, but it didn’t hurt yet in that perfect moment. The umpire dropped his fist as if giving the air a right cross and yelled, “OUT!”
The crowd erupted again. Ted and Kelsey yelled until their voices went hoarse and looked at each other and Ted kissed her because what else could he do? The man in the parking lot stood pointing at the cloud which had decided to envelop them. Diaz went over to help Moss who sat on the plate dazed, his legs spread out at a ninety degree angle, holding his shoulder. Martinez yelled at the umpire, who simply gestured to Moss. He held the ball in his catcher’s mitt. The crowd rushed the field, and the sunset became a swirl of dust, insects, smoke, and joy. The old man in the parking lot yelled in a gargled voice about the rain cloud approaching and pointed up. Ted tore his lips away from Kelsey and looked. The sun had just dipped below the ridge. The rain began and kicked up air no one would taste again. Ted still had his arm around Kelsey, and they watched the rain soak the field, his anxiety gone.
That night they walked downtown drenched to the bone and washed off the smoke and the sweat and the dust from the summer they would remember and pass down.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The NFL's Boycott of Colin Kaepernick is About Power

Lost in the Weird Pageantry of the NFL Players’ National Anthem Protests in Week 3 is that Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed and his cause forgotten.

Full disclosure: A friend of mine gave me this idea late one night as we were setting up Catan (I'm a nerd). She said that Colin Kaepernick’s protest threatens the NFL's power over its players, and that's why he doesn't have a job. And suddenly everything became clear.

Consider this a theory about why NFL owners took knees with their teams during the National Anthem in Week 3 and issued statements supporting their players’ free speech.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the NFL's power is being challenged every day. Players have more access to mass media now than they ever had before. In the days when America was great, players could only speak directly to their fans through the news media. They had to be interviewed by someone--recorded or filmed--then broadcast into what was then mainstream media. Over the past twenty years, 'mainstream media' changed dramatically.

Now, in addition to having High-Definition cameras aimed at them constantly when they're on the field or court, they have direct access to fans via social media. I can tweet to Richard Sherman right now and tell him he needs to cool down on the field a little bit (maybe I should after his blow-up Week 3 in Nashville, but that's another article). And he can tweet right back. He can tweet to his 2.03 million followers whenever he wants. Being able to say whatever he wants whenever he wants gives him power, especially when you consider his writing skills and overall intelligence.

Power is a see-saw. If someone gains power, it means that someone else is losing it. In this case, players like Sherman and Michael Bennett have gained power using the media tools available to them at the NFL's expense.

High-profile athletes have always had the option to use the cameras on them to send a message. Muhammad Ali used the cameras to express his moral trepidation with the racial inequalities he saw and the Vietnam War. He certainly didn't need Twitter to express his views and challenge the racist, mainstream school of thought in the United States at the time.

Kaepernick decided to go old-school for his protest last season by using the cameras to express his dissatisfaction with the racial inequalities he saw around him. But unlike similar protests by athletes about police violence against black people--such as LeBron's and others--it cost Kap his job.

By now, if you're any kind of football fan, you can plainly see that Kap is better than at least a third of the starting quarterbacks in the league so far this season. The fact that Jay Cutler, who hung up his cleats after getting run out of Chicago for a broadcasting job, is on the field for the Miami Dolphins should be enough evidence that Kap belongs in the league. Here's some more evidence if you think Kap doesn't have a job because of his stats.

I assumed, until my friend opened my mind, that Kap doesn't have a job because the NFL owners who could use a new quarterback are racists. I thought they simply didn't care for his "disrespect of the flag" (which is nonsense) or his protesting of racial violence by police. Many NFL owners are probably racist--look at how many once publicly supported our White Supremacist-in-Chief (we'll get to him). But that's not why they blackballed Kaepernick.

Imagine, if you will, that the NFL as a business and organization is the enforcement tool of the team owners, with Rodger Goodell as the czar of uneven and arbitrary punishment. Since there's no video of Kap punching a woman in the face, Goodell can't do what Donald Trump wants him to do and suspend Kaepernick, along with everyone else taking a knee during the National Anthem. Instead, the owners decided simply not to hire him. Kap opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers last year, and he's still at home watching the games every Sunday instead of helping a team win.

Up until Week 3 this season, the NFL and its team owners didn't want players protesting at all. That's why Kap isn't playing. The owners and Goodell can't have people protesting everything all the time. What happens when NFL wives show up at games and start beating themselves over the head with two-by-fours to protest their husbands' brains getting turned to mush by playing in the NFL? People are already troubled by the NFL because of CTE, (and the NFL's attempt to cover up the research) and many others are now boycotting NFL games because of players peacefully protesting.

What if Goodell's seemingly random punishments for players beating up their girlfriends and smoking joints isn't random? What if he sows uncertainty on purpose? If players don't know how they'll be punished, they won't risk acting out or speaking up, or besmirching the NFL's brand in any way.

Then Week 3 happened. Sure, plenty of players, such as the Seahawks' Bennett, have been constantly vocal about police brutality, but there was nothing in the league on the same scale of the spectacle we saw in Week 3 or the original spectacle of Kap taking a knee for the first time.

Donald Trump inadvertently gave the NFL a gift when he called its players SOBs and called for suspensions. All of a sudden, the owners had an opportunity to bury Kap for good. Because Trump forced them into the fray with his tweets, the owners went to bat for their players. They took knees next to them on the field. Even Jerry Jones got his suit pant dirty by taking a knee on Monday Night Football. Even though some NFL owners send Christmas cards to the Trump family every year (metaphorically, unless Robert Kraft actually sends them Christmas cards), the NFL has no unholy allegiance to Trump.

When you were watching the National Anthems before the games in Week 3, how many times was Kaepernick mentioned? How many times did any of the broadcasters mention the cause of the original National Anthem protests? I didn't hear many mentions either. I didn't watch all the games, but I didn't hear any mention of police brutality last Sunday. The NFL turned Kap's protest into a spectacle that missed the point.

Instead of trying to suppress the protests sweeping the league, the NFL joined them, and by doing so, it changed Kap's protest into a sideshow. Everyone's blown away by the sight of billionaire owners joining their players on the field in solidarity, but no one remembers what the players were protesting to begin with. Instead of solidarity against unarmed black teenagers getting gunned down in the streets, kneeling for the National Anthem in Week 3 became a show of solidarity against the President, who made it easy by calling the players names and trying to tell the owners what to do.
Some players around the league will continue to sit, kneel, and lock arms for the rest of the season. It's okay in the NFL's eyes to do so now, because they've shifted the protest to Trump, an easy target and now a common enemy.

But as Kap, Bennett, and others know, the real enemy is the systemic racism that infects all aspects of American life, especially law enforcement.

I doubt the NFL and its owners care at all about police brutality. What they do care about is keeping their power. Athletes have more media access and therefore more power than ever before. In order to keep control and keep their tight grip on the lion's share of the billions of dollars the NFL generates every year, they have to instill fear in the players. Blackballing Kap is a warning to other players: step out of line and you'll be out of work and off the field. The owners neutralized Kap's protest by joining in and shifting the focus. They did it not because they have vested interests in police brutality, they did it to try and wrestle a bit of their power back from the players.