St. Paul eats it up. Joint's packed every game, 2,000 on the season-ticket waiting list. HBO and 60 Minutes bring their cameras to gawk. Mike turns his father's philosophy into a way of life: Fun Is Good. He empties another cup of coffee, leans back in his chair. The eyebrows start hopping, feet jiggling, fingers wriggling as if something's coursing through him that he can't contain. Here it comes: another shenanigan. Give away a funeral to a lucky customer. Give away a vasectomy on Father's Day. Give away minibats and invite Tonya Harding. Give away seat cushions with Don Fehr's and Bud Selig's faces on opposite sides so fans can sit on the one they blame. Wrap fans in rubber fat suits and have them sumo wrestle between innings. Hire improv actors as ushers, post signs prohibiting neckties and the Wave, offer free admission to pregnant women on Labor Day, hold Lawyer Appreciation Night and charge attorneys double, have a blue Spanish cockatiel trained to croak Ball! and Strike! and What are ya, nuts? over the P.A. system.
Betty Crocker's lab kitchen gone berserk, he calls it. Childish? What's better than being a child, asks the man who on one of his weekly outings with Night Train pours a jar of maraschino cherries down his pants in a grocery store to make his son giggle, who rides bikes with the boy through a car wash to make him guffaw. Ain't no stopping him in St. Paul; he's on a roll. He stations mimes on the Saints' dugout roof to provide instant replays, a stunt so heinous that the crowd smashes concessions sales records in its frenzy to turn hot dogs into missiles: Even Bad Is Good. The Saints win three Northern League championships between 1993 and '97. During one of the title celebrations Mike races onto the field and scoops up Rebecca to save her from being trampled by the players.
The lights never go out in Veeckville. He works all day and all night, just as his father did, keeps his staffers up till 4 a.m. strumming his guitar, regaling them with the story about the time Dad dressed his midget ex-pinch-hitter, Gaedel, and three dwarves in Martian costumes and lowered them from a helicopter onto the field at Comiskey to deputize the White Sox' diminutive double-play combo, Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, as honorary Martians in their battle against the giant Earthlings. The next day, when Mike's dazed employees sag at work, he lights an M-80 firecracker and rolls it down the office corridor, his laughter as loud as the ka-boom! Funny, though, that laugh of his, that wheezing, honking eruption. It always ends so abruptly. As if someone yanked a plug.
He still hasn't made it. It's still not the bigs. The Goldklangers buy the Sioux Falls, Charleston and Hudson Valley teams, making Mike part-owner and president of all three as well as the Saints and the Miracle. Impossible. Nobody could have that much energy. Nobody except a man trying to carry his father's torch and escape his father's shadow ... at the same time.
Twenty-five million bucks. That's the net worth of the business Mike and his Mischiefmakers are building, enough doubloons to glitter in the eyes of the major league stuffed shirts who've snubbed him for two decades. And so at last, in 1998, it happens: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays ask Mike to be their senior vice president in charge of marketing and sales. He pops the champagne and dances Libby around the living room. At 48 he's back in the Show. Without Daddy. On his own.
A month passes, just enough time for Mike to start finding his way around paradise. He zips up to St. Paul to emcee a charity event on the day that Libby takes seven-year-old Rebecca to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta to find out why she couldn't read the top line on an eye chart. His cellphone rings. It's Libby. Something's wrong with Rebecca's eyes, something unpronounceable and unthinkable. There's no cure. No way to stop it from killing the photoreceptor cells in her retinas. The lights are going out.
What scares her most is awakening in the pitch black, alone, and not knowing if the pitch black means it's happened--she's gone blind. So the little girl with retinitis pigmentosa, her central vision already vanishing, keeps taking her pillow and blanket to the hallway outside her parents' bedroom to sleep on the floor beneath the painting of Grandpa Bill. Her guardian angel, she tells people. He'll look out for her.
Mike looks down at his sleeping daughter. Then up at the painting of his smiling father. Dad knew. He was born into a house of shadows, to a mother still wrecked by the death of her seven-year-old son, Maurice, by a bullet accidentally fired by his best friend five years before Bill was born. Bill's father, William Sr., buried himself in his work as a sportswriter for the Chicago American so effectively that Cubs owner William Wrigley, upon reading William Sr.'s series of articles about what was wrong with the team, said to him, "All right, if you're so smart, why don't you come and do it?" and named him Cubs vice president in 1918 and president one year later, launching the Veeck family on its blazing trail across baseball's sky.
Somehow, Bill ran faster and harder than his father, even on an ankle smashed to bits by the recoil of a 50-mm antiaircraft gun during a Marine training exercise in the South Pacific during World War II. The ankle became infected and, doctors kept telling him, required amputation. Instead Bill kept pouring cologne down a hole in his cast to kill the stench and kept running, parlaying a stake in a minor league team, the old Milwaukee Brewers, into the purchase of the first of his three major league teams, the Indians. Relenting at last to the knife and inviting a thousand people to a coming-out party for his new wooden leg, dancing every dance until the pressure split open his stump and he had to crawl back to his apartment, trailing blood, on his hands and knees. Oh, well. "Suffering is overrated," he declared. "The only thing we have to fear is fire and termites!" Running his whole life, on three hours' sleep a night, through a failed first marriage, 36 operations on his right leg, emphysema, and lung cancer, running with a children's rhyme--he confessed in his memoirs, near the end--forever echoing in his head: Run, run, as fast as you can. You can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man.