Week 12 of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge brings the five of diamonds and a story by Jim Shepard, originally published in The Paris Review and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1994. You might imagine that "Batting Against Castro" sounds like it might be a baseball story, and you would be right. I approached this story with some trepidation because 1. I am not a person who enjoys reading about any sport, and 2. to me, baseball is just slightly less exciting than watching paint dry.
But what saves this story for even a reader like me is the tone. The story reads like a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler: wry, witty humor bordering on the absurd. I ended up loving every minute of it.
The story takes place in 1951, and is the tale of two hapless professional baseball players, the unnamed narrator and his friend Charley, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. And they are not exactly the best batters on the team. In fact, at one point the narrator says his batting average is around .143, which even I can tell is not great. So it’s not surprising that the two are about to get shipped off to the minor league team in Allentown, but after a while they decide to take matters into their own hands and head for the winter leagues in Cuba.
Charley is not so sure about this at first, however:
Charley took some convincing. He’d sit there in the Allentown dugout, riding the pine even in Allentown, whistling air through his chipped tooth and making faces at me. This Cuba thing was stupid, he’d say. He knew a guy played for the Athletics went down to Mexico or someplace, drank a cup of water with bugs in it that would’ve turned Dr. Salk’s face white, and went belly-up between games of a double-header. “Shipped home in a box they had to seal,” Charley said. He’d tell that story, and his tooth would whistle for emphasis.
So they end up in Cuba, of course, and after they get used to everything (the heat, the fans who like to pelt them with live snakes, and the teammates who put bird spiders in their caps and crushed chiles in the water fountain), their hitting actually starts to improve. And then one day they realize that their games are being attended by Batista, the then-president/dictator of Cuba, and Castro, the future dictator (whom I found out, after a little research, really did have an intense interest in baseball and who was a pitcher, at least on the intramural level).
Finally there comes the day and the game where Castro leaves the stands and fills in as pitcher when the opposing team runs out through their pitching roster.
He crossed to the mound, and the Marianao skipper watched him come and then handed him the ball when he got there like his relief ace had just come in from the pen. Castro took the outfielder’s hat for himself, but that was about it for uniform. The tails of his pleated shirt hung out. His pants looked like Rudolf Valentino’s. He was wearing dress shoes. I turned to the ump. “Is this an exhibition at this point?” I said. He said something in Spanish that I assumed was, “You’re in a world of trouble now.”
I won’t give away the ending, although I suspect you might have an idea how the story ends. But this story is well worth the read, and worth tracking down. It’s included in Shepard’s short story collection of the same name, and I have a mind to get it and read some more of this author who can make even me care about a baseball game.
The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.