Austin pretended to ignore the weird person sitting next to him. For the next inning that’s how they sat, but every now and then the happy-go-lucky stranger winked at Austin, who was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable. He wanted to change his seat. But there were very few seats to move to on opening day.
“Sir, this is a fancy, nice ball park, ain’t it?” said the strange uniformed man. And when he looked at Austin, Austin recognized where he’d seen that face before. It was from old photographs of that old Washington Senators Hall of Famer, Walter Johnson. What a creepy coincidence.
Austin just nodded his head.
“When I used to throw, the stadiums weren’t like this. No siree,” said the man, and he shot out his right arm from his bag of popcorn in a throwing motion. His arm was enormous, the longest arm Austin had ever seen. He imagined the kind of slingshot motion Walter Johnson used to rifle pitches past opposing hitters -- the balls whizzing by so fast that hitters claimed they made a unique sound … like the sound of a big train whooshing by.
“Goodness gracious,” said the man. “Don’t you know who I am?”
That, my friends, is an excerpt from a short novel I wrote in 2015, titled “The Old Man in Section 129.” It’s about an unhappy dreamer named Austin Stoddard whose life appears to be unraveling, and the only thing that keeps him sane is his love of baseball. When attending major league games at Target Field in Minneapolis, he becomes overwhelmed by what appear to be apparitions -- visitations by deceased Hall of Fame ballplayers. They seem to have come for Stoddard’s benefit, and they tell him that one more important visitation -- from their manager -- is yet to arrive.
What happens next? You’d have to read the book. Suffice to say, however, that this “manager” is someone Mr. Stoddard never would have expected to see. And he changes Austin Stoddard’s life, and also affects the lives of his loved ones.
As subject matter for fictional stories, there is nothing better than baseball. If “The Old Man” were built around basketball or football, it just wouldn’t be the same. There is something about baseball that allows you to believe almost anything can happen.
Consider, for instance, a book I read many years ago -- a work of ambitious fiction by W.P. Kinsella called “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.” Kinsella, of course, is the same author who penned “Shoeless Joe,” which inspired the popular film “Field of Dreams.”
The “Confederacy” book is set in Onamata, Iowa, in 1978, and it introduces a fellow by the name of Gideon Clarke who is obsessed with proving that the town once had a minor league team in the early 1900s, and that that same team played against the Chicago Cubs in 1908.
Eventually, Gideon is taken back in time to July 1908 where he, indeed, witnesses a Confederacy contest against the Cubs. That’s incredible enough, but the story gets weirder, so that even the most willing baseball fanatic can hardly suspend his common sense far enough. They go extra innings -- more than 2,000 innings, in fact, in a surreal setting that includes Leonardo Da Vinci and a strange Indian man called Drifting Away. A statue from the local cemetery comes to life and plays right field.
You scoff, perhaps. But we live in an era of wild fantasy. How else could you explain the popularity of zombie stories, super-hero films and even the Harry Potter books?
For those of you who love diving into outlandish baseball stories, I offer you one more of my favorite baseball novels. It was written by Darryl Brock and it’s called “If I Never Get Back.” The story is about a modern-day guy who jumps off an Amtrak train and soon finds himself a member of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Can’t happen, you say? Don’t be so cynical. This is baseball. Anything can happen in baseball.