“Wilkins,” I said. “Randy Wilkins. I don’t believe it.” He looked about twenty pounds heavier, and the curly black hair he’d once had was mostly gone. What was left was cut close to his scalp. As if to compensate for the loss, he had grown a mustache and goatee.
The eyes, they hadn’t changed. He still had that look in his eyes. Some days, you’d call it a twinkle; other days, you’d call it insanity. Which was totally appropriate, considering the side of the mound he threw from. There are some simple truths in baseball, after all. One of them, whether it would be considered politically correct these days or not, is that left-handed pitchers are not normal. They can’t throw the ball in a straight line, for one thing. Everything a left-hander throws has a little movement on it, no matter how hard he trys to throw the straight fastball. A lefthander, being a total freak of nature, is fragile and more likely to hurt himself. One bad throw and the arm is done forever. I’ve seen it happen.
And left-handers think differently, too. They might be a little absentminded maybe. Or eccentric. Or downright crazy.
“Alex McKnight,” he said. He grabbed my shoulders and didn’t let go. “How long has it been?”
“It’s what, almost thirty years?” I said. “How in the world… What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said. “I thought I’d drop by.”
“In the neighborhood, huh? You wanna try that again?”
“Do I get a drink first?” he said. “It’s been a hell of a long day.”
“A drink,” I said. “Of course.”
I introduced him to Jackie. “This man right here,” I said, “played ball with me in Toledo, believe it or not. He was a pitcher.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” Jackie said, shaking his hand. “What are you drinking?”
“Whatever Alex is having,” Randy said.
“Alex is having a beer,” Jackie said. “A beer from Canada. Alex doesn’t drink beer if it’s bottled in America. He makes me go all the way over the bridge just to pick him up a case of beer every week.”
“He doesn’t need the sob story,” I said. “Just get him the beer.”
“You look good,” Randy said to me. “You’ve been working out?”
“Working out, ha!” Jackie said from behind the bar. “Alex McKnight working out. That’s a good one.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Randy said. “This man right here was one hell of a catcher. I don’t think I ever saw him give up a passed ball.”
“Too bad he couldn’t hit his weight,” Jackie said as he brought the beer around.
“Just give the man his beer,” I said. I sat him down in front of the fire and watched him take a pull right out of the bottle.
“So this is Canadian beer,” he said.
“Can you taste the difference?”
“Um, sure,” he said.
“You’re lying,” I said. “No matter how long it’s been, I can still tell when you’re lying.”
He laughed. “I can’t lie to my catcher.”
“Damned right,” I said. “But seriously. It’s great to see you. Except for that mustache and that goatee thing.”
“Makes me look pretty smooth, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, in a satanic, serial killer sort of way. What’s that on your arm, a tattoo?”
He looked at the back of his left wrist. There were three parallel lines. The line farthest from his hand had a gap in the middle. “That’s a trigram,” he said. “You know, from the I Ching, It’s called ‘the joyous lake.’ A Tibetan monk used a needle dipped in spider blood.”
“You’re lying again,” I said. “I told you, don’t even try it. I can see right through you. Even thirty years later.”
“How about I got drunk one night in San Francisco?” he said. “When I woke up, I had no wallet, no shoes, and a brand-new tattoo?”
“That’s sounds more like it,” I said.
He laughed again. It was the same laugh. For one year of my life, I’d heard that laugh at least twenty times a day.
“So tell me already,” I said.
“What’s going on? How far did you have come to get here, anyway?”
“Well, I’ve been living in L.A. for the last few years,” he said. “I was watching a Cactus League game a couple weeks ago, and the guy on TV was talking about how a good catcher is a pitcher’s best friend. I said to myself, ‘Ain’t that the truth,’ and I started thinking about the old days in Toledo. I was wondering whatever happened to you, so I started poking around on the Internet to see if I could find you. I saw your Web site, man, and I figured, Hey, I’m gonna go see him!”
“Whoa,” I said. “Back up. My Web site?”
“Yeah, I did a search on Alex McKnight and it came up.”
“Randy, I don’t have a Web site. I don’t even have a computer.”
“I’m talking about your business Web site, Alex. Prudell-McKnight Investigations.”
I just looked at him for a long moment. And then it came to me. “Oh my God,” I said. “What did he do now?”
“Your partner, Leon?”
I closed my eyes. “Yeah, my partner, Leon.”
“Well, it looks like he’s put a nice little Web site out there advertising your services. There’s this drawing with two pistols on it, pointing at each other. It kinda looks like they’re shooting at each other.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said. “He used the same thing on our business cards.”
“I gave Leon a call,” he said. “Real nice guy. He told me you’d be here. I made him promise not to tell you I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Well, you certainly did surprise me. But why-”
“There’s something on there about you having a bullet in your chest, too. Is that true?”
“I’m going to kill him,” I said. “He is absolutely dead.”
“So you do have a bullet in there?” He sneaked a look down at my torso, the same way everybody does when they first hear about it.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
“All right, save that one, then. Are you married? You got any kids?”
“No and no,” I said. “Married once, divorced. No kids. How about you?”
He looked at the ceiling for a moment. “I’m divorced, too. Three kids. Jonathan just passed the bar. He’s a lawyer in San Francisco. His wife’s expecting a baby soon. Can you believe that? I’m gonna be a grandfather! Annie’s a chef, just got a new job at a really nice restaurant down in San Diego. And Terry just went off to school at UC-Santa Barbara. Hey, guess what.” He reached over and punched me in the leg.
‘Terry’s a ballplayer. He’s on the freshman team. Guess what position he plays.”
“Oh great,” I said. “Another pitcher. I bet he’s a crazy left-hander.”
“He’s a catcher,” he said. “Can you beat that?”
“That’s even worse,” I said. “He has to catch crazy left-handers.”
“He’s a switch-hitter,” he said. “God, he can drive the ball, Alex. Just like you used to.”
“I see your memory went along with your hair.”
“Oh man, you haven’t changed, Alex.” He took another pull from the bottle. “Canadian beer. I can’t believe I’m in Michigan drinking Canadian beer. And why is it so cold here, anyway? Haven’t you guys heard of spring?”
“Sure,” I said. “Just wait until June.”
“Hey, Jackie!” he yelled. “Get your butt over here so I can tell you some stories about your boy Alex here. Stuff I bet you never heard before. And bring some more beer while you’re at it.”
Anybody else who came into the place for the first time and talked to Jackie that way, he’d be back out in parking lot in ten seconds, wiping the gravel off his ass. But Randy had always had this knack for making you feel like you’d known him your whole life, even if you’d just met him. I saw it all the time when we were playing together, and even more when we became roommates. Randy had already gone through a couple of roommates by the time he got to me. Something about the way he’d keep talking all night, even if you had to get up early the next morning and ride on a bus all day to the next game.
But you couldn’t hate the guy for it. As much as you wanted to kill him sometimes, he’d always say something funny and disarming, or, even worse, he’d put his arm around you and sing in your ear. “You know you love me, Alex,” he used to say. “You’ve got the hots for me. You dream about me all night long. That’s why I drive you crazy.”
A whole busload of guys in their twenties, most of them from farms or little towns around the Midwest, all of them dirt-tough or at least trying to act like it. And I got Randy Wilkins for a roommate.
So now almost thirty years have passed, and out of nowhere he’s sitting in the Glasgow Inn on a late Tuesday night in April. It’s taken him exactly twenty minutes to feel comfortable. Hell, in twenty minutes, he owns the place. Even a crusty old goat like Jackie is treating him like royalty. I kept waiting for him to tell me why he had come so far to see me, after all these years, but he kept talking about baseball, the games we had played in, old teammates I had all but forgotten.
“So tell me, Randy,” Jackie said at one point. “Did you ever make it up to the big leagues?”
There it was. I knew it would come up eventually. I certainly wasn’t going to mention it myself.
“Why, yes,” Randy said. “As a matter of fact, I did make it up to the big leagues. I pitched in one game.” By this time, Jackie had pulled a couple of the tables over by the fireplace, and at least twelve men were sitting there listening to him. “You want to tell this story, Alex?”
“I wasn’t there,” I said. And that’s all I said, because I didn’t want to touch it. I had never even heard him tell it before, because after that September call-up, I never saw him again. Until tonight.
“September 1971,” he said. “You guys know how they expand the major-league rosters from twenty-five to forty in September, right? The minor-league seasons are over by then, and most of the clubs like to bring up some of the players to the big club, let them see some action. You know, maybe think about them for the next year. Well, I got called up to Detroit in 1971. Alex should have been brought up, too. But they blew that one.”
Everybody looked at me.
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Keep going.”
“Detroit had a good team that year. They won like what, ninety-two games or something? But that was Baltimore’s year and the Tigers were already out of it, with a couple weeks left. So Billy Martin-he was the manager then-he decides he’s gonna take a look at this hot-shit left-hander up from Toledo, right? A lot of managers, they’re not gonna start a guy right out of triple-A. They’re gonna put him in to mop up a couple innings the first time out. But Martin gives me a start. God, I’m thinking, this is it. This is my big chance.”
He paused to take a breath and a long drink. When he put the bottle back down, it was empty. Jackie hopped up to get him another one.
“It just so happens we’re playing Baltimore,” he went on. “Best team in the majors. And I’m thinking, Okay, no problem. If I can get these guys out, then I’m gonna make the roster next year for sure. It was a day game. A Saturday. I’m in the bull pen warming up-aw hell, they don’t even have a real bull pen in Tiger Stadium. They just have this area down the third-base line. You’re right out on the field. Anyway, I’m warming up and I just can’t believe any of this is happening. It’s like an out-of-body experience. And then when the game starts, I get right out there, because we’re the home team, right? I throw my last warm-ups. Bill Freehan is catching me. You guys remember Bill Freehan?”
Which of course we do. The best catcher in Tiger history. And just one more reason why I didn’t see any time in the big leagues. Not with Bill Freehan catching 150 games every year.
“Okay, so the first was Don Buford. First pitch I throw as a major leaguer, he takes right down the middle. Strike one. Next ball, he fouls off. Strike two. I nibble on the corner a couple of times; Buford lays off. Now it’s 2–2. Freehan calls for the curveball. I shake him off. There’s only one pitch I’m gonna throw now. Am I right, Alex?”
I cleared my throat. “The slinky.”
“The slinky?” Jackie said. “What the hell’s that?”
“Go ahead, Alex,” Randy said. “Tell the man about the slinky.”
“It was his money pitch,” I said. “It was kind of a hard slider, but he’d sort of drop down and throw it sidearm. When he had it working, left-handed batters were dead meat. It wasn’t exactly a treat for righthanders, either. It would ride right in on their hands.” I stopped right there, because I didn’t want to ruin his story. I didn’t tell them that the slinky was once my worst nightmare, because when he started to lose it, he’d start bouncing it five feet in front of the plate.
“Buford fans on it,” Randy said. “And I’m thinking, This is gonna be easy. If the slinky’s working, I’m unhittable. I’m already seeing the headlines in the paper the next morning. ‘Unknown Rookie Throws No-Hitter,’ something like that.”
“I don’t like this,” Jackie said. “I got a bad feeling about what’s going to happen next.”
“Merv Rettenmund comes up,” Randy said. “I throw him a couple right on the corner, but the umpire calls balls. I’m nobody, right? I’m not going to get a close one. I’m starting to get a little upset. So I bring the slinky again, but this time I bounce one in front of the plate. The slinky’s a tricky pitch. It can get away from you once in a while.”
Tell me about it, I thought.
“So now I’m a little rattled. It’s a 3–0 count. I figure he’s taking, so I put one right down the middle. At least it looked like it was right down the middle. Umpire calls ball four and now Rettenmund’s on first. So I start yelling at the umpire and the umpire is looking at me like he wants to run me. Two batters, and I’m already this close to being ejected. So Freehan comes out to talk to me, says, ‘Everything’s okay. Calm down, kid, relax. Don’t let the umpire get to you,’ and all that.”
Which was exactly the wrong thing to say to him, I know. But how was Freehan to know that? He’d never seen the kid before in his life. If it was me, I would have gone out to the mound, grabbed him by the jersey, and told him to stop acting like a two-year-old. Because getting him mad was the only way to get his head back in the game.
“Next batter is Boog Powell. God, I knew he was big, but not that big. He looked like a freakin’ building standing next to the plate. But he bats left-handed, so I figure, What the hell, the slinky is what got me here. I’m gonna keep riding it. Freehan calls for a fastball; I shake him off. He calls for a curveball; I shake him off. I want the slinky. I see him sneak a look into the dugout, like Who the hell is this kid, anyway? But finally, he gives me the slinky. And I throw it.”
He stopped and took a drink again. A born showman.
“So what happened?” Jackie said.
“Boog Powell hits it into the upper deck.” He took another drink and gave everybody a chance to groan.
“Did they pull you out of the game?”
“No,” Randy said. “They didn’t. The pitching coach came out and talked to me. Then Frank Robinson came up and I threw the slinky again. Freehan didn’t even call for it. I just threw it. Robinson hit it onto the roof in left field. Now it’s three to nothing. Freehan comes out and just about tears my head off. Tells me the next time I throw that pitch, he’s gonna break me in half. They’ve got two guys working in the bull pen already, and I’m in a daze by then. I walked Hendricks and then I walked Brooks Robinson, and it was just like a nightmare. I kept looking into the dugout, waiting for Billy Martin to come out and get me. But he’s just sitting there looking at me. With that look on his face like he’s got a bad case of gas. I walked Davey Johnson, and now the bases are loaded. Still, Martin’s just sitting in that dugout. So Mark Belanger comes up. And I’m thinking, Okay, finally, here’s the one guy in the lineup who doesn’t hit. I’m gonna settle down and get this guy and get myself out of this. First pitch, Belanger hits this high pop-up down the left-field line. Any other stadium in the world, it’s an easy out, but this is Detroit, so it sneaks over the fence. A grand slam. By Mark fucking Belanger. So finally, Billy Martin comes out and he says to me, ‘Okay, that’s enough, kid. We’re gonna run out of baseballs.’ ”
When he stopped, nobody said anything. It was almost thirty years ago. Billy Martin was dead now. But you could still imagine what it must have felt like.
“So I gave up seven runs in one inning,” Randy said. “Actually in one-third of an inning, because I only got one out. My lifetime ERA is 198. You can look it up.”
And then he laughed. It broke the spell, and gave everyone else in the room permission to laugh with him. We had a few more beers. We talked some more-about what he had been doing since leaving baseball. Something about him selling commercial real estate, something about coaching baseball at a local high school. More about his divorce, his kids, especially his young son the catcher. He talked a lot that night, and made everybody around him feel glad to be there. Which was always his genius.
But he still never did tell me why he was there.
I had to wait to hear it. Back in my cabin, Randy sleeping on my couch, me in my bed because he wouldn’t hear of kicking me out of it. And he didn’t want to sleep in one of the other cabins, either. He wanted to sleep on the couch.
“Just like the old days, huh?” he said after the lights were out. “Just you and me.”
“That’s not a very comfortable couch, is it?” I said.
“It’s perfect,” he said. “Just like the beds we used to sleep in when we were on the road. You remember?”
“I remember,” I said, and for a moment I was back in a small-town motel room, listening to my crazy roommate talk half the night away.
“So you want to hear it?” he said.
“Why I came all the way out here.”
“I figure you’d get to it when you were ready.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about 1971 lately,” he said. I couldn’t see him in the darkness. There was only the sound of his voice. Maybe that’s the way he wanted it. Just his voice and not having me look at him while he told me.
“About the game?”
“Not so much the game,” he said. “Everything else that happened. You know, that was the best time of my life. Being called up to the big leagues, getting to go to Tiger Stadium, wearing the uniform, getting to sit in that dugout. You know, those dugouts in Detroit are tiny.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Go on,” I said. “Tell me what you’re gonna tell me.”
“There was a lot going on that week. Outside of the ballpark, I mean. I’d never been to Detroit before. There was a lot to see.”
“All around Detroit,” he said. “They’ve got a great art museum there, a pretty nice zoo. They’ve got that-what do you call it, the Boblo boat?”
“The Boblo boat,” I said. “I haven’t thought about that in years.”
“You ever go on that?”
“Sure, when I was a kid.” It was a big old-fashioned riverboat that would take you down the Detroit River to an amusement park on an island.
“And Greenfield Village? And the Henry Ford Museum? I’m going to all these things, and it’s like everything is just great because I’m going there as a major-league baseball player. I mean, it’s not like anybody’s asking me for my autograph. Nobody even recognizes me. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I was somebody important, you know? Everything was just… perfect.”
“What was her name?” I said.
A long silence. “Maria.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “The museums, the zoo, the Boblo boat
“With Maria, yes.”
“So what happened?”
“When I got shelled in that game, I sort of wasn’t myself for a few days. I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to see anybody.”
“So you didn’t see her again?”
“And now, it’s been almost thirty years…”
“I want to find her.”
“Randy, you can’t be serious.”
“I want to find her, Alex.”
“You came all the way out here…”
“To ask you to help me, Alex. You’ve got to help me find Maria.”