I liked the man sitting in my client chair immediately, perhaps for his honest face or friendly smile or his jacket which said “Whales”, but more likely because he looked as old as I am.
“I'm Casey Gaston and I coach a boys' under-fifteen baseball team, the Whales.”
“An unusual name.”
“Our sponsor is Jonah's Big Fish Restaurant. You've played baseball, Mr. Tuff?”
“Yes,” I admitted modestly – and with good reason: my career had been less than glorious. I spent one season with the Legal Beagles, co-incidentally also an under-fifteen team, named for the law firm that sponsored us. I was exiled to the loneliness of right field where I must have set a record for defensive errors, while at the plate I usually struck out, sometimes swinging feebly, sometimes with the help of the umpire. Once I got to first base on an error, but was immediately picked off by the pitcher. To this day, I wonder about the view from second base.
“The Whales have just made the finals-”
“Thank you. Our opponents are the Hunters, a team we beat twice during the season, 21-5 and 18-3.”
“You should win easily. So why do you need me?”
“Because of Claude and Dottie Crabbe. They're the Hunters' coaches, a childless couple about fifty whose egos are entirely wrapped up in their team. After our first game, for example, they protested, saying the game should have been called when the streetlights went on – that's a general ground rule in their park which they conveniently forgot to tell the umpires, no doubt hoping to catch up. The umpire had to waste his time writing a report pointing out that the Hunters were behind from the first inning to the last, so that whenever the game ended, they would have lost. The protest was rejected, of course.
“Our head umpire, by the way, is Ken Kawasaki and he's very good. Coaches and players call him '20-20', sometimes respectfully, sometimes sarcastically. We thought that you, as a retired teacher, would be used to dealing with boys that age- and irate parents. You'd have an air of authority. You could work first base. The job pays five dollars.”
I should have said no, but I liked Casey and I think I liked Ken and I was sure I disliked the Crabbes, so I spent the afternoon studying the rule book Casey gave me. It was the Blackstone of baseball. I struggled to master terms such as “the infield fly rule” and “ground rule double”.
The game was to be played on the Whales' field at one p.m. Saturday. When I arrived twenty minutes early, the shallow stands along the baselines were already filling up with relatives and friends of the players on both teams. A few sported signs: “Make the Whales blubber,” “Make the Hunters weep and whale,” and “Hunters bin nat hooly men.” I was glad to see that someone knew her Chaucer.
I dressed casually, but seeing the fans' enthusiasm and remembering past cries of “Kill the umpire!” I wondered if I should have included a bulletproof vest in my ensemble.
Casey introduced me to the second- and third-base umpires and Ken Kawasaki, whom I instantly liked; then he introduced all of us to the Crabbes, whom I instantly disliked. Mr. Crabbe wore a perpetual sneer while his wife looked as if, at any moment, she might scream or cry. Ken went over the rules. There would be no ground-rule doubles because there was no fence for the ball to bounce over.