Excerpt from Joe Schuster’s The Might Have Been

Joseph M. Schuster. In 2004, Literary Awards Program judge Richard Currey saw a remarkable talent and, with two others, placed Schuster’s entry, A Saint in the Family, solidly in the winner’s circle. Now, this year, Schuster has released his first book — The Might Have Been — through Random House. Check out the first chapter after the jump…

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Chapter One

A long while later-after the accident that would shape his life in ways he wouldn’t understand for decades-Edward Everett Yates would feel sorry for the naïve young man he was then, the one who mistook that summer as the reward for so many years of faith and perseverance.

He turned twenty-seven and was lean and fast, in his tenth year of professional ball, playing left field for the Cardinals’ triple-A team in Springfield, Illinois-well past the age of many of his teammates, who were not much more than boys, twenty, twenty-one, with acne on their chins, two years removed from borrowing their daddy’s car for the prom. One-a nineteen-year-old, rail-thin left-hander with a wicked slider-still had a voice that broke an octave higher when he talked.

Nearly everyone he had begun with a decade earlier had moved on, up and out of the minors or out of the game itself. His roommate from rookie ball, Danny Matthias-a weak-hitting catcher-was in his fourth year with the Milwaukee Brewers, despite averages near .200. But catchers who had the confidence of a pitching staff were rare; singles- hitting outfielders like Edward Everett were not. The previous December, when Danny and his wife sent him a Christmas card, Danny had enclosed one of his baseball cards and written, “The best-looking backup catcher in America.” He’d meant it as a joke, but Edward Everett was envious nonetheless, imagining boys throughout America opening a pack of Topps and finding Danny’s glossy face dusted with sugar from the gum, along with Reggie Jackson and Hank Aaron.

The others-those who had lost patience and faith-had been back in the World for years, selling real estate or tires, finishing college, starting families. One enlisted after his brother died in Vietnam and came back minus a leg, long-haired and strident, on the evening news in his wheelchair, burning a flag.

He woke up that season, found some capacity he hadn’t in previous years when he’d played well enough to stick but not enough to push past the wall that separated the minor leagues from the majors. In the first game, he had four hits in five at-bats against Tuscaloosa, two doubles, a triple and a bunt single in the ninth when he noticed the third baseman playing back on the outfield grass. From then on, he played what the sports columnist in the State Journal Register termed “inspired ball,” with a sureness that surprised him, settling in to what they all called a “zone” at the plate, see the ball, hit the ball, seeing nuances in a pitcher’s motion he hadn’t noticed before, often having a sense of exactly where a pitch would go and how it would move-up, in, down, out-seeming to see it even before the pitcher released it as surely as if he were living a fifth of a second ahead of everyone else on the field.

He was dating a girl named Julie, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Springfield College, who talked to him about auras, ideas he listened to because he knew if he seemed to pay attention he’d get her into bed. But as the season progressed, he wondered if he’d been wrong to dismiss her notions, because once in a while, standing at the plate, digging his spikes into the Midwestern soil and settling into his stance, he felt that in some way the entire ballpark was an extension of himself.

By the end of June, he was batting .409, forty-five points higher than the next best average, and on the third of July, after a five-four victory in Omaha, in which he caught the final out by leaping against the fence and extending his glove a good foot above the top of the wall to bring back what would have been a three-run home run, his manager called him into his office.

Three decades into his future, after he came to understand the full meaning of that moment, Edward Everett would remember it with rare clarity. And why not? He had imagined it ever since he was a boy, imagined it before falling to sleep while he listened to Bob Prince and Jim Woods calling Pirates games on his transistor radio, imagined it as he knelt at Mass when he should have concentrated on the sufferings of Christ on the cross, even imagined it once while he was making out with a girl at a bonfire the October he was sixteen: noticing the shedding poplars silhouetted by the fire, he remembered that the Dodgers were playing the Twins in the Series that night, and wondered, as the girl nuzzled his neck, what the score was, and then saw himself in another October not too far off, in the on-deck circle, in the still point before coming to the plate, while around him the crowd flickered in an anxious and hopeful roar. He had imagined his being called up so often that his imagining seemed more a memory than a desire.

On that day more than half his life ago, Edward Everett sat in his manager’s office-it was Pete Hoppel then-waiting while Hoppel finished a tired conversation with his wife on the phone. He had a practice, Hoppel did, of stripping off his uniform and leaving it crumpled on the floor for the equipment man to pick up and then sitting, his ankles crossed on his desktop, wearing nothing but a red Cardinals logo towel around his waist. Because he was a large man, the towel did not adequately cover him and so, sitting across from him, Edward Everett tried not to notice that his genitals were exposed, but this was difficult since he kept hefting himself in his chair to scratch his hip. In that state, he seemed to Edward Everett, for the first time, shockingly old-the giddy man who had sailed his ball cap into the crowd after Edward Everett’s catch to end the game-that man was in his fifties, Edward Everett realized. In his uniform, Hoppel seemed substantial but, naked, he just looked fat, with folds of flesh cutting across his hairy chest and belly. His legs seemed like kindling that shouldn’t be able to support his bulk and he picked at scaly patches of hard yellowed skin on the balls of his feet while he talked to his wife about whether they could afford a mason to repair their patio. Thirty years earlier, he had been as lithe as Edward Everett was in that moment. On the wall behind his desk hung a picture from when he was with Boston for two seasons, Hoppel’s long arm draped over Ted Williams’ shoulder, two skinny young men in dusty jerseys grinning for the photographer after they each stole home on successive pitches in a game against the Yankees.

“Babe, I gotta go,” he said finally, giving Edward Everett a wink, and hanging up the phone. He took his feet off the desk and pushed himself until he was sitting upright, letting out a groan from the effort. “Don’t never get old, Double E.”

“Yes, sir,” Edward Everett said, not certain it was the right answer.

“Look,” Hoppel said, “you done good. Last year, I would’ve said you was going nowhere. You got the body, but your brains was for shit. This year_._._.” Hoppel shrugged. “Long story short. You’re going to St. Louis.”

Edward Everett felt his heart leap in his chest. “I_._._.” he started to say, but couldn’t think of any words. Today he had been playing a road game in Omaha, sleeping four to a room at the Travelodge, and tomorrow he’d be in St. Louis, where Musial, Hornsby and Gibson had played and where he’d step onto a field with Lou Brock as his teammate. “Called up”-the words seemed in some way holy.

“It’s maybe just for a month,” Hoppel said. “Perry tore up his ankle going into the stands for a pop fly. But here’s a word of advice. Don’t fuck up. Make it tough for them to send you back. Do what you been doing here, and you got a chance to stick. Now get the fuck out of here.”

“I won’t-” Edward Everett said, but Hoppel picked up the phone and waved him out of the office. “Hey, Benny,” he said, without even saying hello. “You still have that concrete connection? That guy, what’s-his-name-he played at Altoona that one year?”

By the time Edward Everett got to the ballpark in St. Louis for the one p.m. holiday afternoon game against Pittsburgh the next day, the team had already finished batting practice and was in the dugout. From down a long concrete corridor that led to the field, he could hear the stadium announcer introducing a woman who would sing the national anthem. The clubhouse was nearly empty. Beside the door, a guard sat on a folding chair, a short and thin man who tugged on his sideburns as he worked a crossword puzzle. A clubhouse assistant laid folded towels on a shelf in each of the lockers, while another set bottles of soft drinks into a cooler in a back corner. A player hobbled out of the training room, his thigh wrapped in an ice pack.

“You Yates?” asked the equipment man distributing towels. “That’s you.” He pointed at the back corner to a locker nearly blocked by a stack of cases of Coke. A white home jersey hung there, his name sewn across the yoke in all capitals; number 66. Edward Everett felt suddenly dizzy and sat down hard on a bench in the middle of the room to keep from passing out.

“A fainter,” the equipment man said, laughing. “You’re not the first.”

Dressed, he rushed down the tunnel to the dugout but hesitated at the entrance. Beyond, the stadium blazed with color-the patriotic bunting draped against the blue outfield walls, the green of the artificial turf, the red and white shirts of the fans rustling in their seats. On the field, the Cardinals worked through their pre-inning warm-ups, outfielders throwing high arching balls that spun against a nearly cloudless sky, infielders taking ground balls.

“No tourists,” snapped a player on the bench, someone Edward

Everett recognized as a relief pitcher, a squat man tightening an ace bandage around his left knee. Edward Everett was going to say he belonged, but the pitcher laughed. “Hey, Skip,” he called. “New blood.”

The manager glanced briefly at him and mumbled something he couldn’t make out but which he took to mean that it wasn’t the time for formal introductions to a rookie.

Not certain of the etiquette, Edward Everett sat at the edge of the bench beside the water cooler and bat rack, trying to form his face into a mask that didn’t reveal his absolute awe at finally being here, his sense that someone was, at any moment, going to tell him it was all an elaborate joke; but once the game began, he might as well have been invisible. Time after time, not paying attention, the other players-my teammates, he thought-tromped on his spikes as they fetched a bat for their turns at the plate. Once, getting something to drink, one of them, distracted by another player whistling and pointing to a blond woman leaning over the railing of the box seats to peer into the dugout, fell over Edward Everett’s feet, landing half in his lap. “Mother fuck,” the player snapped, “watch out,” as if Edward Everett had been the one tripping and falling and not sitting as he was on the bench, squeezed into the corner, trying to take up as little room as possible, his feet trod upon, players not paying attention when they tossed aside their paper drink cups, flinging them at his shoulder, his lap and once his face instead of the trash can.

The game, as some did, became contagiously static, neither team hitting much at all, through three innings, four, five, easy ground balls, shallow flies, players on the bench seeming to sag as the innings passed, eight, nine, ten, fans growing bored, the crowd shrinking, inning by inning, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, fans pushing their way out of the ballpark for their barbecues, family dinners, horseshoes and backyard sparklers. In the top of the seventeenth, however, the Pirates threatened to score, putting two runners on with only one out. The next hitter stroked a line drive to deep left field, where Lou Brock was playing. He dashed across the turf and, just as the drive seemed destined to fall in, leaped for it, his body parallel to the earth, snagging the ball in the webbing of the glove, and then slammed to the hard ground, bouncing slightly but holding on. So quickly that Edward Everett didn’t see him get up, he was on his feet and throwing a strike to the second baseman standing on the bag, doubling off the runner who’d left too soon.

When Brock reached the dugout, his teammates clapped him on the shoulder but he was hurt-his slide on the turf had ripped his uniform pants at the left knee, raising a strawberry that oozed blood, and he limped to the bench, grimacing.

“You, Whosis,” the manager said, pointing to Edward Everett. “You’re hitting for Lou. Get out on deck.”

He didn’t move at first, unsure the manager meant him, but the player beside him elbowed him. “I wanna get home before my boy starts shaving. And he just turned one.”

Edward Everett realized he’d left his bats in Omaha and searched the rack for one to hit with. He found one engraved “Dan Vandiveer,” a catcher Edward Everett had played with at Grand Rapids five years earlier and who’d spent ten days with the Cardinals the previous season, someone who was out of baseball already, thirty-four and doing God only knew what. When he stepped onto the field, the heat assaulted him. In the shade of the dugout, he hadn’t realized how warm the day was, but in the open, under the late afternoon sun on a cloudless day, the temperature attacked him with a force that made him gasp. That evening, watching the news in his hotel room, he saw that it had been 99 degrees during the day; by the time he went to the plate, it was still near 90, but the radiant effect of the Astroturf and the concrete beneath it must have added another twenty degrees.

The stadium came into his consciousness slowly: bending to pick up the weighted donut for his bat, he became aware of the washed-out green of the turf; on television, it appeared a seamless piece but, bending there, he noticed the warp and woof of the thick fabric. He saw, too, the scaling white paint that described the on-deck circle and noticed his red cleats, which, although they had been freshly polished when the equipment man had given them to him, were scuffed and gouged from being stepped on.

1 Comment

  1. Carole Chipps Carlson

    You have something I think is important for good writing: A sense of the rhythm of words and an instinct for knowing when to vary the rhythm. I lead an interest group at the Indiana Writers’ Center, and I find you can’t TEACH anyone rhythm. It’s there or it ain’t.


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