On the road to Lynchburg, with the godfather of soul blowing Carnegie Hall through the phones of his Walkman, Alexandria Dukes pitcher Pete Rice remembers the day he drove his daddy to the hospital and to the doctors who would cut off the old man's leg.
"You know what he kept saying? He kept saying, 'I ain't never gonna drive my truck again; I ain't never gonna walk outside again.' "
To the east, rushing past, are silos fat with the harvest, odd orchards of apple and beech trees he thinks look much like skeletons shackled to the copper soil, and houses where people will one day know his name.
"You know what I wished? I wished I owned a car, then I wished I was so good I could buy one of those gigantic white mansions with a gigantic green roof and my mama and daddy lived down the road a ways in a house that I built, at the foot of a pretty green hill, or up on it. And I was in the major leagues."
On days like today, when there is more road behind than in front of him, he thinks about the best day of his life, and the worst day, and how could so much good and so much bad happen in the course of a year? Sometimes, the moments run together.
"One day he was happy, hauling gas and diesel in a big, cool truck he owned. He was diabetic, you know, and then all of a sudden he bumps his leg climbing into the rig and it gets infected and gangrene eats at it until it chews it all up. So one month they're amputating his right leg and nine months later his left and I'm sitting in a hospital crying and he's saying, 'At least there won't be no more pain, Pete; at least that, at least there won't be no more pain.' "
And then the picture of himself standing on the red clay mound, toeing the rubber and unleashing perdition with a white-hot fast ball unfolds in his mind's eye and allays the ugly memory of suffering in Pensacola, Fla.
Then he remembers tryouts that same season, a week under an evil sun that looked like a tiny copper penny over the sea, under the scrutiny of the big league scouts who would choose only him, only Pete Rice, out of the 250 hopefuls who, like him, had come to the Pensacola Junior College ballpark with hearts beating out of their chests.
"I wore black sweat pants and a white shirt with black sleeves that caught the moon when the sun was gone; beautiful, beautiful . . . "
Across the aisle, a Latin ballplayer stands, staring into the mirror, into his dark, desperate eyes. He whispers over and over: "Grandes ligas, grandes ligas ("big leagues")."
Rice, now 21, was 17 when Squeaky Parker, a scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, told him he would have a chance to play professional baseball. Parker said an agent with the club would be in Pensacola the following weekend, and to wait for his call. Jim Maxwell spoke to Rice's mother on the phone; he wanted to sign her son that day, in his room at the Holiday Inn, and explained to her the $1,000 signing bonus Pete would receive when his contract cleared the National League office.
"Shoot, I thought about all that money, so much money. I thought about what I could buy. But now, where is it? The money in the minor leagues, let me tell you now, it's no good, friend."
Rice's mother spent the day tracking him down. Finally reaching him at a friend's house, she told him a man from Pittsburgh was looking for him and to hurry home.
"I don't know nobody from Pittsburgh, Ma, I told her; who do I know from Pittsburgh?"
Then it occurred to him what day it was: Saturday, Dec. 8, 1979, the first day on the road to Cooperstown, where anybody worth his seat on the bus to Lynchburg believes he is headed.
Rice wasn't always a pitcher. Signed as an outfielder, he spent his first year chasing down flies in Bradenton, Fla., in the Gulf Coast League, playing rookie ball, then moved up to Class A Greenwood (S.C.) of the South Atlantic League, where he labored through two near-disastrous seasons swiping at curves that dodged his bat like magnets of reverse polarization.
"Waiting to be released, all of a sudden after a team party Coach Joe Frisina at Greenwood calls me into his office. I thought about my mama and daddy and about home, how soon I would see it all again at the end of the road to Pensacola. Coach sits me down and says, 'You want to play in the big leagues, you gotta pitch. You're not a hitter, Pete.' So the next day I'm firing that little white rock on the side of the dugout with all the life that's in me. The ball's slapping the mitt, and I'm thinking: maybe, maybe, maybe . . . "
Five hours a day on a bus, playing rough poker with cards as dog-eared as the dealers, can be dispiriting. The road reels out under you like days lost to a distant life in distant seasons. There are no maps with colored veins as highways running north, south, east, west, with thicker arteries as rivers and blue blotches as lakes and seas. More often than not, there are days when a minor league ballplayer holds his shoes in his hands and asks: where on earth have I taken myself?
"I'm so full of dreams, so full of fantasies about greatness. Sometimes I think my head's about to split open."
But the journey is more to lose yourself than to find yourself; it is a giving, not a taking. You pack your glove and spikes and set your cruise highbound to Beulah. The more you drive, the more you lose, like an animal shedding a coat of hair. You drive until you think you know where you are and finally stop your hot, sputtering engine. It's then you're a major leaguer, and there is no reason to search anymore.
At the hotel in Lynchburg, Rice stands on the balcony and looks down at the pool, a soupy, brown pit, then across at the freeway where the cars scream and slam en route to places that are not, none of them, home.
Mike Quade, the Dukes player-coach, crosses the parking lot, spitting tobacco juice into a cup. Quade's head is shaven, hidden by a floppy red cap held up by the shoring of his ears; he carries a rod and reel with a rubber lure that's lost its shape after countless tosses into lifeless oceans of asphalt.
"One day, I'm gonna buy me a cane pole and some worms and whatever city hotel we're at I'm gonna cook my catch on their restaurant grill. Quade, he don't fish completely right. Wherever there's water, he's standing over it; anywhere there's a ripple, he's looking for the Big One . . . "
Rice shares a room with Dorn Taylor, a short-relief pitcher from Willow Grove, Pa., who sleeps well past noon every day and wakes only in time to watch the afternoon soap operas.
"For me and Dorn, Bubble Yum's the gum, General Hospital's the soap."
When Rice returns to the room, Taylor is still sleeping, a rigid brown mass under a cheap print of an even cheaper work of art.
"Dorn, tell everybody what we do all day on the road."
"We play ball."
"Yeah, but what do we do?"
"We watch TV and eat hamburgers and run from room to room cussing each other out," Taylor says without opening his eyes.
"Tell everybody what I did the first time I saw the Washington Monument."
When Taylor doesn't answer, Rice pinches him. "Tell everybody," he demands, then pulls back the sheets. "Come on, Dorn, tell everybody . . .
"What I did was call my mama, who is a maid, and told her I saw with my own two eyes what she's only seen on TV . . . "
This is the room where Pete Rice rubs analgesic balm into the shoulder of his right arm and contemplates the journey to the great league. Feverish, yet proud, are the nights he runs his left hand over his right arm, the whole of it, feeling the veins that pump true, the meat that is muscle, the tendons and sinews that are the magical mystery glue.
"My daddy played baseball before me, in the old Negro league; he knew Willie Mays then. Before they cut off his legs, he was over six feet and weighed pretty near 250 pounds; now he's 210. Forty whole pounds. I look at my arm and see my life. My arm is my baby; get rid of her and I get out of baseball. Other guys have their bats and their gloves; all I have is my arm."
In the last room on the bottom floor of the hotel, sitting in the diaphanous glow flooding his picture window, Alexandria Manager Johnny Lipon looks and moves like a bronzed statue of the quintessential baseball player. Except for the twirling of his thumbs, which alternately turn clock-, then counter-clockwise, he does not move. Although it is warm outside--where his boys are dressed in muscle shirts and gym shorts, gazing at the nasty pool in which they dare not swim--Lipon wears a black sweater with half-moons of perspiration under the arms and works a wad of tobacco prodigious enough to produce sweat on his upper lip.
"This man is a great man. He comes up with things like: 'When you go out there, fellas, the ump says, 'Play ball'. He doesn't say, 'Work ball'. Ask any minor league ballplayer: you got a choice of riding that bus five hours a day, seven days a week, or slaving nine to five in the fields back home; you ride the bus, friend, you ride the bus."
Pete Rice, squinting against the sun, shields his eyes with the flat of his hand; all morning, he has considered the matter of killing time. He could do any number of things: visit the strange ladies in Danskins and leg warmers at the Y, take a hike downtown to the arcade or to Hardee's for a shake and fries. He looks for Quade, but sees nothing, no one. And where is Dorn? Sleeping probably, sleeping the sleep of dreamers.
Crossing the lot, he watches his coach behind the great window, Lipon at war with Red Man, with time, and losing on both counts.
Rice knows the sun is too high, the day is too long. There is no place to go, nothing to do.