Fells Point, Baltimore
It was a quiet evening along the Baltimore waterfront. The air was still, humid, and suffocating. A sharp note of decay, drifting in off the water, perfumed the air.
Horses clomped along the evening streets and the lamps lit the cobblestone a ghostly yellow. Without the steady sound of the horses outside, one may not have known that time was passing. Nevertheless, the past, slippery as it was, was being swallowed up by the present.
Inside the old, dusty saloon—itself a bit of a tomb with its cold stone walls—a large, mountain of a man did his best to drown out the sound of hoofs. He sat at the bar, his elbows guarding the whiskey in front of him, and stared at the bottom of his glass.
“Say, ain’t you…” a patron started.
“No. Not me,” he replied abruptly—too abruptly to hide the truth but abruptly enough to end the conversation.
Washington Park, Brooklyn
April 20, 1885
Chick Jonas had finally made the major leagues at 30 years old.
The grizzled, former farmhand with the jerky left-handed swing had bounced in and around baseball for his entire adult life. Before Baltimore found him, he had played in Alabama, Mississippi, New York, Texas, California, and Pennsylvania. Wherever somebody would let him play, he would play. In that regard, he had become a bit of a folk legend among professional scouts. It seemed that, no matter where there was a game of baseball being played, there was a good chance that Chick Jonas was catching in it.
The tall, lumbering catcher, whose body was already starting to break down—after so many innings and so many years in the baseball desert—looked the part of a major leaguer. His broad shoulders and intense stare suggested an All-American athlete. Unfortunately for Chick, he was not blessed with the natural talent his appearance suggested.
Instead, Chick’s game was built on the edges of the rulebook. His hustle on every play, and his desire to win-at-all-costs, were as obvious to any spectator as was his inability to hit a baseball. However, the scout who finally signed him recognized where his true abilities lay.
Chick’s talents for bending the margins of the game of baseball to his favor were not immediately obvious–which, in any given game, worked in Chick’s favor. However, the scout saw Chick’s genius immediately.
Mozart composed; Chick cheated.
And so, Chick had willed himself to the very top echelon of ballplayers.
In his first major league at bat, on Opening Day against the Brooklyn squad, he struck out on three pitches. In his second major league at bat, he struck out on four pitches. In his third major league at bat, Chick laid down a bunt and reached safely when the catcher bounced his throw to the first baseman. 0 for 3, but he was on first.
The game between Baltimore and Brooklyn was tied when Chick touched first base. Neither team had a natural advantage over the other. So, of course, Chick was determined to change that.
The next batter knocked a ground ball between first base and the defender. Looking over his shoulder, Chick noticed that the umpire’s attention was on the ball and not on him. So, he took off running as fast as his oversized frame could move—directly for third base—skipping second along the way.
Despite Brooklyn’s protests, there was no remedy available. The umpire had not seen Chick’s gambit, and Chick broke the tie on the next at bat—another ground ball through the infield. Brooklyn again erupted in anger, but there was no obvious recourse available.
Chick smiled, devilishly, as he reached the dugout and shook hands with his teammates.
In his fourth major league at bat, Chick’s season ended abruptly when he was hit in the head by a fastball.
The major leagues dissolved shortly thereafter.
Fells Point, Baltimore
“End of the line,” a big, round drunk said to Chick, louder than he probably intended.
“What do you mean,” Chick replied, anxiously. The defensiveness in his voice was palpable. His large frame and rigid angles, which had previously served as a warning to those who might choose to approach him, had become less austere and more uncertain with each new drink. The degree to which his presence dominated the space around him had lessened.
“A poet died here,” replied the rotund drunk, “in this bar. Poor bastard probably did not even know he had written his last word.” He paused and took another sip of ale.
“Or, not here, here, but certainly from here,” he continued his meandering, less-than-intelligible train of thought while correcting himself for a record that no one was keeping. “Or, maybe not from here, but this is where he had his last drink. And what’s the difference, then, anyways?” The man turned red as he guffawed maniacally. His inebriation had the pleasant effect of causing the laughter to slosh out of him.
“Left here and they found him wandering the streets in somebody else’s clothes. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic. Didn’t even get to go out as himself.” The drunk paused again to take another sip of his drink.
Chick grinned, enjoying the sodden spectacle of the man, and thought to himself, “I wonder if he’s wearing someone else’s clothes?”
“They say the devil finally came to collect his keep,” he said as leaned in towards Chick. “Don’t matter who a man was. If he runs with the devil, it’s only a matter of time before the devil catches up.”
“And if a man’s faster than the devil?” Chick asked.
“Ain’t no man faster than the devil,” the man replied, confidently, and stood to leave. His feet were seemingly less sure than his mind as he stumbled into Chick, knocking Chick’s drink over.
“And if a man doesn’t play by the devil’s rules?” Chick asked.
“It would take a helluva man to cheat the devil,” the drunk yelled back as he stumbled to the door.
“Helluva man,” Chick repeated to himself. He noticed, for the first time that evening, that he could not hear the sound of horses.