THE CLUBHOUSE MAN HOLDS ONE FLASHLIGHT. I HOLD ANOTHER. THE CLUBHOUSE MAN'S FLASHLIGHT SHINES ON THE POEMS, WRITTEN WITH A FELT-TIP PEN ON THE WOODEN WALLS OF A LOCKER NOW BELONGING TO PITCHER CLAY PARKER. MY FLASHLIGHT SHINES ON MY NOTEBOOK. I AM COPYING THE POEMS.
The time is 10 o'clock in the morning. A sudden storm last night knocked out the power in the clubhouse an hour before the Toledo Mud Hens were scheduled to play the Denver Zephyrs. The power has not returned. The Mud Hens' dressing room is as dark as a cave. There are no windows. I could be an archaeologist exploring the writings of some bizarre forgotten culture. Hieroglyphics. I am looking at modern hieroglyphics. Ten o'clock in the morning.
Hey, batter, what's the matter?
Hey, batter, batter, batter, batter...
Pitcher's off his rocker,
Looks like Betty Crocker.
I have been sent to Toledo to climb inside the soul of minor league baseball. Or something like that. The team's name is the obvious attraction: the Toledo Mud Hens. Is there any better, more evocative name in all of American sport? Where, exactly, is Toledo? What, exactly, is a mud hen? There are Clippers in Columbus, Bisons in Buffalo, 89ers in Oklahoma City, but the Mud Hens of Toledo—a strangely named team in a medium-sized city—best seem to capture the off-the-beaten-path quirkiness of the minor leagues.
What is it like to play baseball in the shadow of the big time and the big money? What are the frustrations? What are the joys? I have flown to Detroit, driven the 60 miles of interstate south to Toledo. The Mud Hens are the Triple A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. How hard is it to make that 60-mile trip in the other direction, to Tiger Stadium? How far away am I? Exactly?
The walls are caving in,
Get out of The Morgue before your mind caves in.
Heed the warning of past Mud Hen ghosts,
Whose own psyches have transformed into burnt toast....
The darkness in the room somehow seems perfect. Most of the poems I cannot use in this magazine because they contain certain foul words. I copy along for a while and—uh-oh—one of the unusable words appears. I move to another poem. I copy fragments, pieces. The printing is different from poem to poem. No one knows who wrote the first one. No one knows who wrote the last. No one knows why this locker was chosen as the place to write the poems.
"Terry Felton once had a locker in this same spot," the clubhouse man says. "Remember Terry Felton? He's the pitcher who went to the Twins and lost 16 straight games. It was a major league record. Well, he was here before the wooden lockers were built. He had a metal locker. One night, he was knocked out of a game and came in here and just destroyed that locker. Attacked it. He took a bat and beat the locker until it was maybe three feet tall. Maybe that was the beginning. Karma."
One poem is entitled "Disappointed Dreams" and written under the pseudonym I.M. Suspect. Another begins, "For whom the bell tolls, it does not toll for me...." The pseudonym here is Ernest Hemingway. The message that unfolds is that former major leaguers should not fret about big salaries, but simply return to a game in which teams always are waiting for washed-up big names instead of no-name minor leaguers. ("Just jump aboard the SS Minnow, commanded by the albino general, and the fountain of youth will be yours.") The writers' frustration is obvious. In a third poem, everyone awaits a call from Detroit manager Sparky Anderson:
Here we are in Toledo, no doubt.
It could be because of Sparky's gout.
We have to stay here and bide our time
Until our bean ripens on the vine.
When we 're ripe at some old age,
Then maybe we'll make a living wage.
So don't fret and be blue,
For someday you'll be in Sparky's Stew.