Walter started shaking at the confirmation of what he already knew. Indeed, he did know who this was. He did indeed feel it deep down and it scared him in a way he did not understand and it left him feeling desperate and alone…vulnerable…like a sheep separated from the rest of the flock or a rookie on the Braves facing Dwight Gooden. And he didn’t know why he could not move away from him. He was frozen to his chair, barely able to even move his feet. He felt in every sense of the word, trapped.
After a few moments, the initial wave of fear and anxiety passed just enough to allow Walter to gather his senses back and questions began to form in his mind.
“Wait, what do you mean ‘the act of sin’…what am I doing wrong? I’m just sitting here and I was minding my own business until you sat down.”
“Oh, Walter, you are a good kid. It hurts me to say this, but you are a great kid. You are one of the ones that make my job so difficult and the reason your soul is unavailable. However, Walter, let me ask you a question. How is that beer?” The Major League Lucifer smiled broadly while his eyes remained squinted and focused on Walter.
Walter looked down at his beer and realized this strange stranger was correct. Act of sin seemed to be a strong phrase for harmlessly getting a beer in a bar when underage, but he realized he did have to lie to get in there. He had him on a technicality.
“Yes, Walter, like a full-count pitch, painting the corner high and tight, I got you on a technicality.”
The tension in the air was broken with the return of the game from a commercial break. Much like Shea Stadium, the mood of the bar was decidedly somber. Walter, however, still held out hope. Two runs are nothing for this team, he thought. He fondly thought back to Game 6 of the NLCS as well as all those other games they won during the season after being behind on the scoreboard. He was not worried…The Mets will do it. They will win, he kept telling himself.
“No, they won’t, Walter.”
“I don’t care what you say,” Walter replied angrily. “They will come back without your ‘help’ and without my dealing away their future,” he added…more trying to convince himself than anything else.
The small Diamond Diabolus turned in his stool to completely face Walter, leaving his left hand on the bar. It was done in such a sudden, smooth and dramatic way that it caught Walter off guard and forced his full attention, turning away from the television.
The Hardball Haborym said nothing but drummed his fingers on the bar creating a sound so loud that it sounded as if it came from Shea with the fans stomping their feet and not a “man’s” fingers. A moment after the last of the beats, the bar let out a groan. Walter turned back quickly only to see Backman had just lined out to leftfield.
“Keep telling yourself they will win, Walter. Not without some help, I assure you they won’t.”
Walter knew Keith, the Mets best pure hitter, wouldn’t make the second out. No way. “Stop with your games, you little man or whatever you are. I may be young,” lowering his voice a bit to not be heard by the bartender, “but I am not that easily taken. This team is going to win…I have no doubts,” Walter responded, raising his voice again.
Despite his confident tone, he had a pit in his stomach, and now wave after wave of anxiety and fear washed over him. His beer was not sitting well and he started to sweat, even as Hernandez got ahead in the count.
And then he heard the drumming on the bar again.
“Out number two, Walter.” the Pastime Prince of Darkness said dryly and slowly. Hernandez proceeded to fly out.
Gary Carter was Walter’s favorite player and as he came to bat, the little Evil Infielder, with a cold sneer on his lips said, “It would be a shame for you to have the image of Carter striking out to end this World Series for the rest of your life. The Kid. That wholesome, dynamic individual, standing at the plate with his bat on his shoulder as the Red Sox celebrate on your field. How could anything else be the same after that, Walter?”
“And it will happen, Walter.” He grabbed Walter’s arm and suddenly they were standing on the roof of Shea Stadium. Walter could hear the “silent” murmur of Shea Stadium…he had been there so many times, he could tell when they were losing just by the sound. He recognized the smell, as well. A mixture of Italian sausages, stale beer, jet fuel and, on some days, a faint smell of ocean breeze (New York City ocean breeze, not Outer Banks ocean breeze). He could instantly feel the cold…he could feel Winter waiting to take Shea.
From the position they were on the roof, Walter could just see the centerfield/leftfield walls and above, including the DiamondVision screen. When his shocked brain could finally registered what it said, for a moment, he lost all hope.
“CONGRATULATIONS BOSTON RED SOX, 1986 WORLD CHAMPIONS.”
He let go of Walter’s arm and just as quickly they were back in the bar. Walter violently and abruptly reached across the bar to grab on, as if holding onto a cliff, knocking over his beer. Walter’s heart was racing as his mind struggled to deal with what he just saw and where he had just been.
“Listen, Walter, as a sign of good faith, I’ll let Carter off the hook. I’d rather have Beltran, anyway.”
Much to Walter’s relief, Carter lined a single to left field. He was still stunned, but a fresh wave of optimistic dread washed over him. He asked for another beer as he contemplated what was going on as he watched Kevin Mitchell take strike one.
“Okay,” Walter finally spoke, “let’s say I agree to your terms. Do the Mets just suck for the rest of my life or do they get close? Will they ever get back to the World Series?”
Kevin Mitchell lined a single into center field with Carter going to 2nd base as the Met-istopheles sat quietly, without an answer.
“Is there room to negotiate,” Walter asked, with a small dose of excitement in his voice. “Does it have to be my whole life and the lives of my children? Is there something somewhere in between?”
Ray Knight, with two strikes, lined another single to center field. Gary Carter scored and Kevin Mitchell was standing at third.
“I’m listening, Walter,” deadpanned the Sandlot Satan, as he started drumming his fingers on the bar again.
“What if they just don’t win again during this decade?”
Mookie Wilson fouled off the first pitch he saw. Strike one.
“You can do better, Walter.”
“What if they don’t win until I turn 25?”
“Not bad, Walter, but not there.”
“How about the rest of this century, they don’t win a World Series?”
“So we have a deal?”
Foul ball. Strike two.
“Interesting, but, no.”
“They don’t win the series through 2010?”
“You are getting closer to the plate now, Walter.”
Now you are getting creative. I like that. I didn’t think you had the hardballs to challenge me…to negotiate like this. I am impressed. However, I can’t have this guy foulding balls off all night.
The next pitch bounced into the dirt and Mookie leaped into the air. As the Red Sox catcher gave chase, Kevin Mitchell raced home with the tying run. The bar and Shea Stadium erupted in cheers and Walter leaped to his feet.
“Does this mean we have a deal?” Walter excitedly asked.
“I said you were closer to the plate, Walter, but they haven’t won yet. Just think of the ways they could still lose this game. I have not agreed to anything yet and I can still be pretty creative with how this team can lose games…and seasons,” the Hardball Hellraiser spoke, before whispering under his breath, “You’ll see.”
Walter had a taste of the win on his tongue now. His adrenaline was running fast and he could feel the blood in his head pumping.
“As great as this feels, I can’t let them just not win the rest of my life. What about a deal with conditions?
“You seem to be a betting man…or whatever you are. What if we make it a bit more interesting and put a condition on it, instead of a hard date. Something like they won’t win until I am able to run a marathon or learn to juggle.”
“Walter, Walter, Walter…Now you are getting creative. I like that. I didn’t think you had the hardballs to challenge me…to negotiate like this. I am impressed. However, I can’t have this guy fouling balls off all night…You get to present me with one more proposal and then I am done here one way or another.”
Walter thought about what his life might be in the future and he thought about all the other things in life to be hopeful for…Football. Basketball. Girls. Love. Children, maybe one day. The last though crossed through his brain like a hanging curveball.
And then Walter mumbled something under his breath, talking to himself as he stared at the TV, shaking his head. “I would just hate for my kids to never see them win the World Series. If I never had children, I could be fine with never having this experience again…this excitement. But I could not imagine not sharing this with my own kids.”
Mookie Wilson hit a slow roller down the first baseline. A hobbled Bill Buckner went over to cut off the ball only to have it roll through his legs. Ray Knight came around third and headed home. The bar exploded with cheers as Beer and popcorn flew through the air. Walter had never seen such a celebration and such happiness. Joy just seemed to wash over everything. It was as if he was seeing in color for the first time. And, he too, was overjoyed to the point of tears.
Walter looked over at Arnold who sat on his stool with contempt in his eyes as he looked around the joyous scene.
“I never get used to this part of the job,” he mumbled angrily.
Walter shifted from being overjoyed to having a sense of dread wash over him. He didn’t know whether his tears should be of joy or fear, but he felt a deep sense of regret sitting in his soul.
“Wait, what is done? What did I agree to? Is there a deal? Do they win on Monday?”
“Sure there is, Walter. The Mets win the 1986 World Series and you do not see them win another…until you have children of your own, Walter”
“Walter contemplated it for a moment and smiled. And then laughed. And then…as he thought about his offer for 2030 and did the math, he suddenly felt dread again…Why would this Baseball Beelzebub settle for terms that, on the surface, seemed less favorable? Why…as he came to a realization, his joy turned to dark thoughts.
The Outfield O-Yama pulled up the sleeve of his Yankee jersey to reveal several tattoos. The logos of the Cubs and the Indians were first exposed. Then, the last logo, the Red Sox, was revealed. “This was fun Walter,” he cheerfully spoke. Suddenly a small flame emerged from Arnold’s skin as the Mets logo was burned into his shoulder.”
“Thank’s, Walter. I do take great pleasure in telling you that I didn’t need this. I still had the Red Sox for another 18 years.”
Walter, suddenly feeling panic asked, “What about the others?”
“The Cubs, I have for another 30 years. And the Indians…Well, the Indians will never win another World Series. It was nice doing business with you, Walter. Wear a cup.”
With that, Arnold suddenly disappeared. Two nights later the Mets would win the World Series.
Nearly 35 years later, Walter found himself sitting in the same seat at the same bar watching news of another injury to his Mets team, the latest was Jacob deGrom, their ace and arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Walter just laughed at the news.
“Add it to the pile,” he said towards the TV screen. Of all the things Arnold said to him that night so many years ago, the one thing he should have paid the most attention to was “wear a cup.” He shifted on the barstool uncomfortably and thought back through what it meant to be a Mets fan all these long, lean years.
Walter was playing first base during a softball game with his friends the afternoon of Game 4 of the 1988 National League Championship Series when he was certain he saw Arnold across the park staring at him. A moment later, his ears started buzzing with the call of Terry Pendleton’s September 1987 home run, distracting him as his friend hit a line drive that ended his chances of having children of his own. It was later that night while laying in a hospital bed, watching Doc Gooden holding a two-run 9th inning lead and the Mets about to go up 3 games to 1 in the series when he took the second hit to his groin that day with Mike Scioscia’s game-tying home run and realized he truly just may have cursed his beloved Mets.
In later years, the supposed franchise-changing acquisitions like Vince Coleman, Frank Viola and Bret Saberhagan would always initially make him feel that perhaps he had not cursed them but eventually provide more evidence of such.
In 1991 he was still hopeful enough that he did not doom the Mets that he was still bitterly disappointed and cried when the Mets traded David Cone. In 1995 he cried some more when Gooden was suspended and then, for the only time in his life, he walked away from baseball for a year. He felt Arnold was just being spiteful when Gooden pitched a no-hitter and helped the Yankees to a World Series win in 1996. And he felt it was downright cruel when Cone pitched a perfect game and helped the Yankees win the World Series in 1999.
Somehow he convinced himself in 1999 that the curse was broken when they forced Game 6 in the NLCS against the Braves and then rallied in that game back from 5-0 and 7-3 scores and take the lead in the 8th only to be again demoralized when the Braves tied the game twice, late, and won it in the 11th on a bases-loaded walk.
In 2000 they won 8 of their last 9 games to win the Wild Card. They then knocked out the heavily favored Giants in the NLDS before crushing the Cardinals in the NLCS. And Walter was all in, even if the writing was on the wall with them facing the Yankees. The curse, of course, continued with what seemed to be two plays, a bad baserunning mistake and a thrown bat dooming them. The Yankees celebrating on Shea’s grass would live with him for years.
In 2006, he felt they had a chance when they still managed a 7th game against the Cardinals despite numerous injuries to their pitching staff. When Endy Chavez made that glorious, but ultimately meaningless catch, he still had hope in his heart that was nearly drained away when the bat never left Carlos Beltran’s shoulder with the bases loaded and them losing by two in the bottom of the 9th. He thought back to the night of Game 6 and what Arnold had said about Carter and suddenly remembered why Beltran’s name always sounded familiar.
It was in 2007 he knew in his heart to dread the most…he remembers Arnold’s slithering tongue almost slip something out about the season all those years ago in the bar. Yet, he held out the most for that season, hoping, somehow, that the curse could be broken. The only thing 2007 did was break him to the core and left him knowing there would be no divine miracles against curses. While the fact Arnold had alluded to 2007 before a deal was struck seemed to indicate these things were predetermined and that he was not responsible, his heart could not hold any more hope.
It was that season that finally gave him perspective. While it hurts deep down in his baseball soul, it was when he realized it was not the championships that he loved about baseball. It was the small moments. A diving catch on a low line drive. The perfect pitch in a crucial situation. A drive to the gap. Anything with Mr. Met. He simply learned to love the game and the Mets for what it was and who they were.
In 2008, he simply accepted early on that the Mets were a doomed team and when they started to show signs of collapsing late, he didn’t try to think through how they would avoid it and knew it was simply inevitable.
The 2015 season was one he enjoyed more than most in the nearly 30 years since 1986. He loved watching Harvey and DeGrom dominate from the mound and enjoyed how well the team played together. While Chase Utley seemed to resemble a young Arnold, Daniel Murphy thrilled him and Wiler Flores inspired him. Their run at a Championship felt magical to him, even if he already knew they would fall short. He enjoyed the game and he enjoyed that magic.
Walter, although deeply haunted by the deal he made that night, lived a good life. During his 20’s he would meet a lovely woman who already had two small children and he would become a step-father. He had a good job and he was happy man, in general. He was also a good man living a good life, even if 35 years of bad teams, bad calls and bad moves with the Mets tormented him.
He still very much loved the Mets and went to games whenever he could. His mancave at home was garish in its orange and blue glory, but he did everything he could to protect his children (at times he loathed how he was tricked on a technicality) from his cursed team. Despite it, it was inevitable that they would grow up to be Mets fans, as well. He would enjoy going to games with them and teaching them the game, despite knowing that the team would never win a World Series.
So, while the devil may have gotten the best of poor Walter Stoneham, in the end, Walter won even when the Mets did not. And he would never tell another living soul how he, Walter Stoneham, had cursed the New York Mets.