A Fan of the Game
by James P. Roberts
It was a small crowd tonight. Hank Johnson had expected it would be. The Cythera Cougars had clinched the division a week ago and here it was late August. Transition time from horsehide to pigskin...for most people. But the Cougars could usually count on the three to four hundred die-hard fans to fill up the empty spaces between promotional nights. From his perch in the box seats behind the screen protecting the crowd from vicious foul balls, Hank watched the Cougars mount a five-run lead over the hapless St. Olaf Kings. As batter after batter spanked base hits, the distinct voice of John Sweeney echoed into the Iowa summer night. "Blow your horn! Blow your horn! The sheep's in the meadow, and the cow's in the corn!"
Now there was a character, Hank mused, rubbing a hand over his week-old stubble. He hadn't shaved since the clinching win over the Algona Plainsmen and had promised not to until they lost again.
Hank was the general manager of the Cougars. A burly, red-faced man, Hank resembled a weather-beaten farmer. His big hands had sweated over a plow in his youth before the lure of the diamond claimed him. When that dream failed (due to slow feet and a susceptibility to a curveball) Hank went into baseball from the business end. Like any ballplayer, he supposed, Hank had worked his way up the ladder until two years ago when he came to Cythera and took over the Cougars.
Hank's thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the press box door. The corpulent figure of Bill Thomas, the local sportswriter, emerged and gingerly advanced towards him. Hank brought out a pack of Marlboros and lit up. Bill Thomas plopped into the aisle seat next to Hank. "Hank, me and the boys have been talking."
Hank glanced at the shock of white hair cropped close to Bill's skull. "What about?"
Bill pointed a stubby finger toward the bright red reserved box seats. "Old John."
"Yeah," Hank grinned crookedly. "Has he been up to any tricks lately?"
"Still tryin' to sweet-talk the player's wives," Bill chuckled. "But that's not what I came to jaw about."
"Like I said, me and the boys...Harve, Doc, and Whitey...were yarning about Old John and we got to thinking how special he's been to the ball club."
"What kind of hare-brained idea did you all come up with now!?" Hank growled.
Bill beamed, spreading his hands expansively. "Why, we thought it would be fitting to give John his own day at the ball park!"
Hank looked toward the old black man in the white Panama hat in Box 23. He saw the thin hands flick peanuts out of their shells and pop them into his mouth. A Cougar batter singled sharply to right field. When the player took his lead off first base, Old John began his time-worn chant, "Let's go! go! go! go! Aaaaayuh!" Another fan brought out his trumpet and blew a ragged charge.
"Well, what do you think?" Bill asked, drumming his fingers impatiently on the back of the seat.
Why do I put up with these jokesters? Bill, the egocentric sportswriter; Doc, the saturnine trainer; Harve, the lonely public address announcer; and Whitey, the pitching coach who continually relived his fifteen minutes of fame.
"I think it's a good idea, Bill. Let me sleep on it."
"Hank! There's only three games left before the playoffs! We were thinking about tomorrow night."
"No. Way too soon. We wouldn't be able to publicize it."
"No! Let's make it a big surprise!"
"Yeah, let's give old John his very own uniform. Better yet, let's put him on the bench during the game!"
"Are you crazy?"
"No, I'm not." Bill's face was set in serious lines. "I think it would be a great tribute to a man who has been associated with Cythera baseball for more than fifty years."
Hank fell silent, thinking. Actually, it wouldn't be too difficult to arrange. There were a half-dozen uniforms left in the clubhouse from players who had been promoted during late-season roster shuffles. The executive board and also the league office would have to be notified to get Old John activated on the roster so he could sit in the dugout. "Well, Bill, I'll see what I can do."
The Cythera Cougars would finish out the season with a three-game series against their probable playoff opponents, the Kanawha Sioux. During the morning, between supervising the grounds crew who were sweeping the trash leftover from last night's game, Hank spent a lot of time on the telephone. When the bus carrying the Sioux ball team arrived, he corralled the Kanawha skipper who saw no problem with the idea. At four o'clock the Cougar players began arriving for batting practice. They all agreed to go along with the "special day." Even the dour manager, "Rags" Simpson grinned for a brief moment. At six o'clock Hank had opened the gates, and the dozen early arrivals wandered in. Soon enough, the sparrow-like form of John Sweeney was spotted alighting from a car driven by his son-in-law, Amos Talbot. Hank met him at the gate.
"How're ya today, John?"
"Well, I suppose I would feel bettah if you'd let me sit with the girls, Mistuh Johnson."
Hank grinned. "I've got something even better than that, John." He took the old man by the arm and led him, walking cane, Panama hat, and all, until they stood outside the Cougars' dressing room.
"Don't you tell me you went and baked me a birthday cake, Mistuh Johnson!"
"Didn't even know it was your birthday, John!"
"Well, I surely don't recall telling anybody, but why don't you just spill what's on your mind, Mistuh Johnson."
Unobtrusively, Bill Thomas had joined them, a notebook ready in his hand.
"John Sweeney," Hank began the speech he had prepared during the morning hours, "You've been a faithful fan of our Cythera Cougars for nearly fifty years! You've seen the great champion teams of the 1960s and you've seen times when this franchise couldn't buy a win. You've sat here, in Box Seat 23, through rainouts, snowstorms, days when the thermometer broke 'cause it was so hot...why you've even sat through a tornado that darn near knocked the rest of the park into the Cedar River. In celebration of and in tribute to such a devoted fan of the game, the management of the Cythera Baseball Club has voted to give you your own day at the ballpark."
"Why, Mistuh Johnson, I shore am surprised!"
"But wait," Hank felt like a game show emcee as he suddenly rapped on the dressing room door, "it was also voted to change the name of the team for today to...The Cythera Sweeneys!" The door had opened, and all the Cougar players had emerged wearing a new uniform jersey which spelled SWEENEYS across their chests.
Then "Doc" Connors held up another jersey and on the back was lettered "J. Sweeney."
"So, John, you old Mississippi mudcat! You can forget about Box 23 and the players' wives tonight. You'll be sitting in the dugout with the team!"
Bill Thomas was furiously scratching in his notebook while applause broke out from the players and the few fans who had gathered to watch the ceremony.
"Now, John, if you will step into my office, we can talk about a contract."
Old John Sweeney was shaking his head, but his weathered eyes were brimming full of tears. "Mistuh Johnson, you shore do beat all!"
They entered the dressing room, walking past the lockers full of pine tar, glove oil, lamp black, sweaty t-shirts fresh from batting practice...the smells of baseball. The manager's office was a mere cubicle, big enough for a desk and a army cot where Whitey presided, and little else. Hank drew out a sheet of paper from a desk drawer and handed it to John Sweeney. "All you have to do is sign your name at the bottom, John. This activates you on the roster and says you can legally sit on the bench." Old John's hand trembled as he wrote his name in big block letters. "I never did learn that cursive type of writing."
"Why don't we try out the uniform now?"
John Sweeney's face beamed with a smile. "You are the Skippuh, Mistuh Johnson."
Billy Hayes and Miguel Sandoval vied with each other for the honor of warming up with Old John. At first they just lobbed the ball, but John Sweeney would have none of that. "Don't patronize me, young man!" he snapped as he whipped the ball back to Sandoval.
"Rags" Simpson stood on the top step of the dugout, a bat in his hand. "Infield!" He turned to Old John Sweeney and bellowed, "Sweeney...right field!"
After warmups, John Sweeney took a seat right next to "Rags" Simpson. The game was a see-saw affair. Kanawha scored three times in the second inning, but the Sweeneys chipped away with single tallies in the fourth, fifth, and sixth. In the eighth the Cythera home run machine exploded with Sandoval, Jerry Dunning, and Marcus Tyree smashing the ball over the fence. Going into the top of the ninth inning, Cythera held an 11-3 lead. As Monte Stephens, the lanky shortstop, grounded out to end the bottom of the eighth inning, "Rags" pointed a bony finger at the silent figure of John Sweeney. "You're in, John. Right field."
"Mistuh Simpson! You gone crazy?"
"You're activated, John. That contract made you a member of the team...and everybody on this team gets to play. Now get out there before I fine you for slowness!"
The Cythera crowd erupted into a standing ovation when the lean figure of John Sweeney emerged from the dugout and trotted out to the bright green pasture in right field. Even from the bleachers, one could see the gleam of wetness as tears trickled down the old man's face.
"I hope he doesn't get killed out there, Rags," said "Doc" Connors.
Old John Sweeney pounded his fist into his glove and bent over in the customary fielding position as the Cythera pitcher, Dalen "Vacuum" Hoover, fired a fastball past the flailing Kanawha batter. One out. The next hitter fouled off nearly a dozen pitches before coaxing a walk. Old John could feel his heart pounding with excitement. He bent and pulled up a handful of grass and tossed it into the air. Hardly a breeze tonight. Then, the batter swung and the ball lifted into the sky toward John Sweeney. Old John began drifting back, his eyes barely following the lazy arc of the ball as it headed into the darkness above the light standards. He could hear the frantic Spanish of Miguel Sandoval, "Es tu pelota! Es tu pelota!" as Sandoval sprinted towards him.
Back further still...then he lost the ball! Straining into the night sky, John Sweeney kept drifting back until his spikes crunched into the gravel of the warning track. Where was the ball?
It came speeding into the light directly above him! John stuck his glove back over his head, blindly waving it in a circle. Suddenly, there was a pull against his wrist that hurt momentarily. John brought the glove back to his chest, dimly aware of the crescendo of the crowd. He opened his glove...there was the ball, and a moment later a grinning Miguel Sandoval reached in and plucked it out, "Way to go, viejo!" Sandoval threw the ball back to the infield and trotted away. Old John Sweeney stood dazed, frightened at the shaking in his knees. He had caught the ball! He had made a play!
Dalen Hoover struck out the last batter, and the game was over. As one, the Cythera Sweeneys ran out to right field and mobbed the man named John Sweeney. From his perch in the grandstands, Hank Johnson watched them carry John Sweeney off the field on their shoulders.
Bill Thomas came bustling out of the press box. "Would you believe this? Hank, this is history! John Sweeney has just become the oldest player in baseball!"
Surveying the still-applauding crowd, Hank grinned. "What else could we do? He was a fan of the game!"