God is still getting an earful tonight, 26 years after Casey Stengel died. Roger Maris, in a nod to his number, is literally living on Cloud 9, and Wilt Chamberlain—his head wreathed in a terry-cloth halo—is able at last to answer the question, "How's the weather up there?"
St. Peter is not the greeter at the Pearly Gates—it's Toots Shor in a tux—and the gates are mere swinging saloon doors. Nobody inside is playing a harp, but Mickey Mantle is drinking a Harp, and when Fred Astaire sings in the lounge, "Heaven, I'm in heaven...." he isn't kidding.
"Where are they now?" you wonder of your heroes. Well, so many of them are here that it's almost like the ESPYs, except this show runs for all eternity, and the ESPYs only seem that way. Where are they now? Where to begin? Babe Ruth is at his usual table, and he couldn't be happier, because the Sultan of Swat scant moments ago was finally given his wings. Not angel wings, fool: buffalo wings. Everyone knows Ruth was no angel, but there are myriad other ways to get a table here, and bringing joy to millions is one of them. So the Bambino long ago earned his wings, to say nothing of his jalape�o poppers. The food in this joint is to die for.
Steaks that are out of this world, nachos that are not of this Earth, mozzarella sticks that are simply divine. Go ahead: Cholesterol can't kill you twice. But Satchel Paige, who maintains a healthy deathstyle, still disdains fried foods that "angry up the blood." So he sits at his booth with Cool Papa Bell, casually enjoying a Cobb salad. (Now you know, too, what's become of Ty Cobb.)
We're kidding, of course, about Cobb. The truth is, nearly anyone can get into this place, but be warned: For some it's paradise, for others purgatory. Here, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Throneberry, party of nine, your table is ready. We're terribly sorry, Mr. Durocher, but nice guys are seated first. Perhaps you'd like to wait in the bar.
There's nothing wrong with the bar, mind you, or the bar-keep, Al McGuire. He's still careful to leap feetfirst over any bar when breaking up a fight. It's a lesson he learned in his father's saloon and put to good use only a second ago when Billy Martin punched out Woody Hayes for bogarting his beer nuts. This happens every night here, Al, Billy and Woody gleefully mixing it up. They wouldn't miss this for the world. They're having the time of their afterlives.
See, all of life is 6 to 5 against, but the afterlife is a sure thing, a deadbolt lock. Or so says the bar's resident Runyon, Damon Runyon himself, who, liking the odds here, spends most of his time in the backroom sports book, playing the ponies. Or rather, playing the people. Because on Earth we cheer wildly for dwarves on horseback. Up here, though, they cheer wildly for horses on dwarfback. It's a small karmic correction, giving the animal the whip. So the winner in the eighth race today is a small, blinkered Peruvian man whose jockey is named Seabiscuit. Sure, the horse looks ridiculous riding his mount like a circus bear on a tricycle, but the system somehow seems fairer, more appropriate.
This backroom, for instance, is done up in a knotty pine-lodge look, and mounted on the walls are the taxidermied, plaid-capped heads of hunters. Beneath them, a squat Italian-American bettor with a big gappy grin tears a rare losing ticket in two. "Winning isn't everything," Vince Lombardi says with a shrug, and these days he actually believes it. The dearly departed, it seems, have seen the light. (Literally so, in most of their cases.)
Yet the dead would never tell you how to live. For one thing, it would be presumptuous, and all the sportsmen up here have, astonishingly, abandoned their egos. (A sign above the bar reads ONLY GABRIEL IS ALLOWED TO BLOW HIS OWN HORN.) Second, there's no single path to enlightenment, up here or on Earth: Ben Hogan, for instance, still seeks wisdom in the bottom of a range bucket, and he frequently finds it there. (And, yes, he is the source of golf-ball-sized hail.)
It may not be your idea of eternal bliss, this joint, but the regulars here think it's heaven. "Where are they now?" you wonder. Well, Willie Stargell's on Cloud 8. Dick Howser's on Cloud 10. Simply look up in the night sky to locate the Big Dipper. Ask him, "How's the weather up there?" Bet he tells you it's beautiful.