My wife and I drove slowly over the bricks and stopped in front of the James Hotel, the tallest building in town. In the lobby old men dozed in faded armchairs, while overhead a huge fan turned so slowly I could count its blades. We registered with the grinning clerk. He wiped a handkerchief across his brow. "Hot 'nuff for y'all?" he asked.
We fell asleep fully clothed on the old, iron poster bed in our room and we did not wake from this, the longest of all road trips, until the following night. We ate spareribs at a barbecue place and then drove out to the ball park to watch my new teammates play. They were not called the Braves, I learned from the hotel clerk, but the Azaleas. "After the town flower," the clerk said.
"I never played for a corsage before," I said, but he did not smile.
"They play their games in The Bowl," he said with pride. "The Azalea Bowl." A slightly pretentious name for a Class D ball park, I thought, until we arrived there and I saw that the name was not so much pretentious as ludicrous. The Bowl was a decaying structure at the edge of a swamp. It was enclosed by a 10-foot wooden fence that began behind the left-field bleachers, went behind the home-plate stands and terminated behind the right-field bleachers. The outfield was enclosed by a three-foot-high wooden fence whose purpose seemed less to define home runs than to hold back the swamp. Thick, green foliage hung over the fence, obscuring the faded names of restaurants and gas stations that had been painted there. Long vines and tendrils crept under the fence onto the playing field, so that often, when an outfielder chased a ball to the fence, vines would get caught in his spikes. Each week, it seemed, the vines crept farther onto the field, the swamp pressed closer, overrunning The Bowl as it was overrunning the town.
Carol and I arrived at The Bowl in the third inning of a game between the Azaleas and the Tampa Smokers. We sat in the top row of the home-plate stands, which were only 10 rows high. On this humid night in June there were perhaps 100 people there, most of them blacks, laughing and cheering in the segregated bleachers along the left-field foul line. On the field my new teammates trailed the Smokers 8-0 under dim lights and to the accompaniment of the noises of the swamp: strange thrashings-about and the caws of birds. In the fifth inning a snake slithered under the outfield fence and the umpires called time while our rightfielder beat it to death with a bat. By the seventh inning mist from the swamp was drifting into the outfield. Concealed from the waist down, outfielders floated eerily through the mist after fly balls.
The Azaleas were, I discovered, one of the worst minor league teams ever assembled. They had fallen to last place and then buried themselves ever deeper. Their fortunes had so turned against them by the time I arrived that players often refused to take the field. The team's leading pitcher, "Birdlegs" Perez, a Dominican dandy with a cherubic face and a body like a stick figure, had lost seven games in a row. He refused to pitch anymore. He claimed he had calcium deposits in his elbow. The Azaleas' leading home-run hitter was Paul Catto, a portly, unshaven first baseman. Paul refused to play one day when, after putting his glove down beside the dugout, he took a lap around the park to loosen up and returned to find his glove stolen. "Enough is enough!" he shouted.
An Azalea outfielder, call him Jim, had been a teammate of mine at McCook, Neb. After indifferent success at McCook he had become a star in Palatka. When I arrived he was leading the Florida State League in hitting, a few percentage points ahead of Tampa's second baseman, Pete Rose. Jim was not used to the pressure. Each day he grew more twitchy as Rose narrowed the gap between them. He pleaded with the manager to drop his name from the starting lineup. He complained of mysterious ailments. He accused Rose of voodoo. And then one day he sat by the window of his room on the top floor of the James Hotel with a case of warm beer beside him, drained each bottle in a single gulp and tossed it out the window at a passing car. Bottles exploded on car roofs and shattered on the bricks. Someone telephoned the sheriff. Jim was arrested. The sheriff telephoned the Milwaukee Braves. A decision was made. The sheriff escorted him to the bus depot and put him on a Greyhound heading north. That was the last we ever saw of him.
I was kept on the inactive list for two weeks. I arrived at the ball park each day at 5:30, dressed, pitched batting practice, ran 10 halfhearted wind sprints, showered, put on my street clothes and joined my wife in the stands. We watched about five innings of each game. Then we had supper and went back to our house, where we watched television and made love.
What we had rented was a tiny house the size of a garage at the end of a dead-end street. The kitchen contained a battered refrigerator just cool enough to keep food from spoiling for six hours and an old gas stove that continued to hiss gas even after it was lighted. The living room was bare and rugless and contained only a few sticks of wicker lawn furniture. The bedroom was rugless, too, and as stark as the rest of the house except for a huge, canopied four-poster bed in the center of the room. Carol fell in love with that bed on first sight. "It's so elegant," she said.
One night the bed broke down. We found a few wooden crates and metal pails on which to rest the mattress. After that we slept carefully, making no sudden moves. We could have avoided such anxiety by simply putting the mattress on the floor and sleeping there, but Carol would not have it. She was too terrified of the bugs, she said. They were the size of goldfish. Crackly-shelled palmetto bugs, they lived in the walls and ventured out only in darkness. When we returned home at night and flicked on the lights, we would catch them in maneuvers in the middle of the living room floor. The light would momentarily stun them. Carol and I would step on them. Their backs cracked like eggshells. They would regain their senses quickly and scatter in disarray as we stomped after them. Once Carol cornered one, raised her foot high—and smashed her spike heel through the floor. Given a reprieve, the condemned darted into the wall. Carol pulled her foot out of the floor and the heel broke off. She began to cry. "They're eating the house out from under us!" she wailed.