“NO WAY…I wouldn’t do it,” said the young man, casually with a hint of a laugh in his throat, staring up at the TV screen behind the bar. “Why would I? This game is tied and we have Backman, Mex and the Kid coming up in the bottom of the inning.”
It was a typical New York City bar. Dark. A bit dirty. Tight to walk through on a big night. A place that really, only the locals would venture into. Barely changed since the 1969 Mets won the World Series.
The portly old man with a cheerful round face and a sly smile chuckled a bit as he grabbed the brim of his Yankees cap. “Dave Henderson. Leftfield line. 0-1 count,” was his reply.
The young man turned his head towards the old Yankee fan and scoffed just as the batter took a big swing and miss. He had an uneasy feeling about the strange man, all decked out in Yankees clothes while the Mets faced off against the Red Sox in the World Series. “No way this dude plays Game 6 hero two series in a row.”
He took a sip of his beer and the old man just laughed. The kid’s sip of beer exploded back out of his mouth as Dave Henderson swung a mighty swing and danced down the first baseline as the ball cleared the fence just inside the leftfield line.
“How about now…Walter?” asked the not so cheerful old man, now with almost a sneer. The kid wasn’t sure what surprised him more…the fact this man guessed the home run correctly, how quickly his disposition changed or that this stranger knew his name.
“Yes, Walter, I know who you are. Walter Stoneham. Son of George Stoneham, bulldozer operator in Brooklyn. Son of Sally O’Malley, formerly a secretary for a moving company in Manhattan. Neither related to the baseball demons of New York, but sharing their names, nonetheless. Married April 11, 1962, the same day as the very first Mets game. You were born on an interesting date, as well. October 16, 1969. Right around 3:14 in the afternoon. In case you have never done the math, yeah, you entered the world at just about the moment that Davey Johnson’s fly ball entered Tommy Agee’s glove. A happy belated birthday, by the way, but we both know you are not nearly old enough to be sitting here with me at a bar drinking a beer in New York. But your parents don’t care about baseball and coming from a family of nine with a single TV in the home, there is no place else for you to be…to watch this. You seemingly were born to be a Mets fan and you’ve embraced that birthright. You were young in 1973, but you have brief flashes in your memory of the excitement…and the disappointment of that season. You were only 7 when the Mets traded Seaver, but you knew and you cried and you cried and you cried.” The old man paused for a moment, closed his eyes, put his hand to his chest, and allowed a broad smile crack across his face revealing a mouthful of crooked teeth. He seemed to let out a gasp of pleasure with a perverse chuckle. “I hadn’t seen that many tears since O’Malley pulled the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. You are young, but your passion for this team is unmatched by almost all. You can still feel the sting of last season. Despite the success of this season, you still feel that dagger churning away in your heart. Your young life of fandom has been filled with crushing seasons of loss and soul extinguishing losses. Yet you hold on and you will probably always hold on…even through that awful season in two-thousand and sev…well, never mind that. Yes, Walter…I know you, young…. passionate… impulsive… and your family very well… and I know you would be willing to do just about anything to see this team win. Anything. My name is Arnold Rothstein and as I said before, I’d like to make a deal with you.”
He had said all this slowly and deliberately and Spike Owen’s strikeout followed by cheers from others in the bar seemed to punctuate his slow rant.
Walter locked eyes with the old man and he felt a coldness go through his body. Time had held still, it seemed, for the time the old man was talking. He didn’t even realize that Owen was at-bat. For a moment, he was speechless and fixated. The sounds of the game and the cheering in the bar suddenly sounded as if they were all inside a glass jar. They were faint but clear in their echoes. The rest of the bar became a blur around the old man’s face which seemed to sharpen with an unnatural contrast to the world around.
Walter’s mind raced, looking for an explanation as to what was happening. How could this guy know all that? What was he up to? As the moments passed he became more uncomfortable.
The bar cheering as Calvin Schiraldi struck out snapped Walter from his daze. Not knowing how long he was in that state, he turned back towards the TV as he tried to rationalize what this old man had just said. He took a few deliberately slow sips from his beer and watched as Rick Aguilera went up 1-2 on Wade Bogg, while still taking the occasional sidewards glance at the old man. However, his desperate hate of Boggs and the prospect of him striking out caused him to, for the moment, set aside what the old man had just said to him.
He mustered up his best fake laugh, uncomfortable and forced, and sputtered, “You must work with my father. Did he send you to scare me out of this bar? Dad always did have a weird sense of humor.”
“Don’t make me do this, Walter,” the old man replied, locking eyes again with Walter.
“Double into the leftfield gap,” he said calmly and with no inflection in his voice.
A moment later, Boggs sent a double to left field and Walter’s attention snapped back towards the television.
Walter took a big gulp of his beer and signaled to the bartender that he needed another one. He was contemplating how many beers he had already drunk as he took another side-long glance at Arnold.
“You’ve had three. Not everyone gets a chance at a deal like this, Walter. You need to be special to get a visit from me.”
“Who are you?”
“I already told you, Walter, I am Arnold Rothstein.”
I’m not going away, Walter. You can’t ignore me. I am prepared to make you a very generous deal, but I cannot hold back this game forever. I would hate to see this game get out of hand. A lot can happen with two outs.
“Seriously, who are you? Is this game on a delay from the network? Is someone somehow transmitting to you what is going on? And why the hell are you bothering me?” Walter sputtered, raising his voice with the last question. He was equally frustrated by the turn the game had taken and the presence of this old man who knew way too much about him. He felt a cold sweat developing and he wasn’t sure what was causing it. The Mets were losing and things looked like they could get worse.
“Hell, Walter, I think you know exactly who I am.”
“I think you are just another asshole Yankee fan, is who I think you are.”
Arnold chuckled at this and tipped his hat. They both sat in silence and watched as Barrett worked the count full.
“I’m not going away, Walter. You can’t ignore me. I am prepared to make you a very generous deal, but I cannot hold back this game forever. I would hate to see this game get out of hand. A lot can happen with two outs.”
On that last word, Barrett lined the ball to centerfield, scoring Boggs. Scenes of celebrations in the Red Sox dugout flashed on the television as Shea Stadium and the entire bar somehow got even quieter.
“Jesus Christ!” Walter muttered.
“Oh, there is no reason to bring Him into this, Walter. Let’s keep this civil. I’ll tell you what. I am a fan of goats. I like goats very much. They play right into my strengths. So, I’ll even let you mark the goat for this game if we can work out a deal.”
“What are you talking about? What kind of deal are you even talking about. What do you mean by ‘mark the goat’?”
“I’ll let you pick who gives this game to the Mets, Walter.”
Walter shook his head in disbelief. He wasn’t buying a word this guy was saying. “What the hell do I care…Mark this guy, I don’t give a shit!”
With that, the pitch from Aguillera hit Bill Buckner in the ribs.
The bar let out a collective groan.
Walter turned and looked at the old man again.
“Yes, Walter, ‘What the hell?’, indeed,” the old man sneered, almost mockingly.
As Rice worked his way to a 1-2 count, Walter was finding himself becoming more and more agitated. On one hand, he wished this guy would just leave him alone. However, on the other, he could not help but thing how he would feel if the Mets came back in this game. He thought long with a smile on his face how he would feel late Sunday night when the Mets were celebrating in the bowl of Shea Stadium. It made him feel warm and happy inside and made him forget, for a moment, just how creepy the old man was.
“Okay, let’s say I was interested,” said Walter. “What kind of deal are you talking about?”
Jim Rice hit a fly ball to right field for the third out of the inning.
“It is really very simple, Walter. The Mets win this game and the World Series on Monday night and I take your soul when you die.”
“What? My soul? For a lousy World Series? I’d need like 27 rings before I’d agree to give up my soul!” Walter Exclaimed. In a moment of self-introspection, muttering, Walter added, “I can’t believe I even uttered that. I’m not sure I even believe in souls.”
“Calm down, Walter. I’m just joking. I’m not here for your soul. Your soul isn’t eligible for such a deal…just yet. No, I am just here on baseball business. No, Walter, my deal is this. The Mets stage the comeback tonight…you get to see one of the all-time great baseball – and it hurts me to say this word – miracles in a few minutes. They win Game 7 on Monday and become Champions. In exchange, the Mets don’t win another World Series in your lifetime or in your children’s lifetime.”
“No. No, that’s an awful deal, even if I believed you. And this is some sort of trick. Game 7 is tomorrow…Sunday. Not Monday.”
“Walter, this is very real,” he responded, somewhat angry. “And I am not allowed to do the things I do on Sundays.” Arnold pretended to look out the non-existent window of the bar and whimsically speculated, “I think I see some rain in the forecast.”
“What qualifies me to make a deal like this? Of all the Mets fans out there, including a stadium full that right now are in agony, why does such a deal fall to me? And, really, I need an answer to this. Who are you to make such a deal? The tortured soul of Shoeless Joe? That asshole Ty Cobb? Anyone that has ever played for the Yankees?”
Arnold laughed. “Oh, Walter…You surprise me. You are a kid, wise beyond your years. You’re from a family with two of the most cursed names in baseball, yet from that cursed beginning rose this blessed team and you. Your father helped bulldoze Ebbets Field and your mother helped arrange the Giants move out to the West. You were born in one of baseball’s great moments and you are absolutely unwavering in your love of this team. Granted, you are young and you don’t know true heartbreak, yet, but you will never waiver in your faith in this team. And this isn’t all on you. 665 of my colleagues are currently working on securing that we get the proper number of deals tonight. However, I’ll be honest, you are the most important. Without you, we cannot make this deal. You Walter…You are the key. All I had to do was wait for the right moment and while you were in the act of sin.”
The old man let that sink in for a moment, before continuing.
“And you may not know exactly who I am, but you have a pretty good idea. Your brain may not want to embrace who I am, but you felt the chill the moment I sat down and that low, deep incessant noise of the coverage of the Seaver trade hasn’t left your ears since. You can feel your pulse quicken with every word I say and your heart stops for a moment with each sentence I begin. You keep catching a faint whiff of stale champagne mixed with beer in Busch Stadium in that autumn air. I can see it in your eyes that you know who I am when you look at me. You can’t see beyond my face when you look at me, right? Walter, you know and right now you feel like your long ago ancestors, sitting in a deep cold cave, surrounded by darkness and noises that drift up from the depths, like being stuck in an alley behind Yankee Stadium. Right now, you feel that fear in the deepest part of your body. That is your soul, Walter, telling you who I am. It is and I am, indeed, very real.”