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And I remember a game in Winnipeg that began in weather so cold—19 above zero—that we had to build small fires on the dirt floor of the dugout to prevent our fingers from going numb. We huddled around the fires, simian men in gray flannel, and at the end of each inning sent one of our tribe to forage for twigs and bits of paper in the open area behind the outfield fence. Because I was the player least likely to be used in that game, I was the one sent to forage.
By June I no longer pitched, not even the last inning of hopelessly lost games (which were many, since the Braves were in last place). I spent each game in the bullpen. I warmed up constantly, inning after inning, trying to recapture what had once been as natural as walking. I became more frantic as I threw, and my motion became even more distorted. I was pushing the ball now, like a shotputter.
There was nothing wrong with my arm. I could have understood a sore arm, dealt with it, accepted it eventually. What was happening to me was happening in my head, not my arm. Whenever I began to throw a ball, my head went as blank as a sheet of paper, and afterward it buzzed with a thousand discordant whispers. Recently, a friend of mine met Jeff Jones, the scout who had first signed me to a Braves contract. He asked Jeff why I never made it to the major leagues. "He should have," said Jeff. "He had a great arm, one of the best I'd ever seen." And then he tapped his forehead three times. "But he had a bad head."
After a while no one would catch me in the bullpen; not our third-string catcher, not any of my fellow pitchers. So I threw alone, without a ball. I stood on the warmup mound, pumped, kicked and fired an imaginary baseball toward the plate.
It was in Winnipeg one night that I thought I might be starting a game at last. Jim Fanning, my manager, tossed me a ball and told me to go to the bullpen. "But don't warm up yet," he said. I sat in the right-field bullpen for a while and watched our team practice. I grew anxious as game time drew near. Finally, one of my teammates came sprinting toward me. I stood up, flexed my shoulders, touched my toes twice. It was a pitcher, Jerry Hummitzsch. He tossed me a catcher's mitt. "Jim wants you to warm me up," he said. "He can't spare a catcher right now."
"But I thought...he told me I was starting...."
"I only know what he told me," he said, and stepped onto the mound. I caught him until he was warm. Each pitch was a blur through my tears. When he returned to the dugout I remained in the bullpen for a few minutes and then I walked across the outfield to our clubhouse. I changed into my street clothes without showering, packed my blue canvas bag and walked to the bus stop. I took a bus into town, got my other bags at the hotel and took a Greyhound from Winnipeg to Eau Claire. I reached the Eau Claire bus terminal at nine o'clock in the morning and found my wife there, crying. "I didn't know what had happened to you," she said. "Everyone's looking for you. Jim Fanning called. He said you ran away.... I thought you'd left me, too...." She began to laugh and cry at the same time. "I had this ridiculous vision.... You were running like a madman through Canada.... You were in your uniform...."
That night John Mullen, the Braves' farm director, telephoned. He told me that for jumping the club I was suspended without salary from Eau Claire. I told him he was too late, that I had already suspended Eau Claire from my career.
"Don't be a wise guy," he said. "We're reassigning you to Palatka in the Florida State League. You get down there within two days or I'll see to it you don't get your final bonus payment." We got there.
Situated on the banks of the St. Johns River, Palatka was surrounded by dense tropical foliage in limitless swamps. It was always hot, and it rained daily. The town's main street, made of bricks, was called Lemon Street. Weeds grew out of the spaces between the bricks and out of the cracks in the sidewalks and at the bottom of the concrete buildings, so that to a stranger the vegetation appeared to be strangling the town. There was a paper mill in town. It supplied most of the blacks and poorer whites with employment. Each morning at six they were summoned to work by a whistle that woke the entire area. Shortly thereafter Palatka was blanketed by a lavender haze and filled with a terrible stench.