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May 21, 2011

Wezen-Ball

"The Last Pennant Before Armageddon"

by Larry Granillo

I've written about this before in other places, but something about today makes me think it'd be appropriate. Enjoy...

Found in W.P. Kinsella's The Thrill of the Grass, a collection of short stories, "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" is a great little story following the manager of the Chicago Cubs sometime during the Cold War 1980s as he leads his team of superstars towards the World Series crown. As the club gets closer and closer to the championship, manager Al Tiller becomes more and more convinced, through visions from God, that the world will end if the Cubs win the pennant. And, with temperatures rising between the US and Russia, his visions just may be true.

Like I said, it's a fun read and puts a pretty literal spin on the old "Hell will freeze over before the Cubs win the World Series" joke. I'm far from a Cubs fan, though, so I can't say for sure if the subject matter would bother me enough to keep from enjoying it. It certainly isn't mean-spirited, though, and that could make all the difference.

Besides the concept, the most interesting part of the story is how the Cubs go about becoming the best team in baseball. In the story, the Cubs are owned by an eccentric billionaire who paid cash for the team after making his money from the discovery of "a unique worm deep in an Alabama swamp, a worm that drew fish to it the way the back of one's neck draws mosquitoes." Immediately after buying the team, he threatened to change the name of the team to the Chicago Worms and, when that was disallowed, he instead threatened to move them back home to Alabama. Finally, he decided to just buy up all the best players in baseball, regardless of their position, and make them play together:

"Chester A. Rowdy didn't move the team to Alabama. Instead, he bought free agents like they were jelly beans. 'Hell, it's only worms,' Chester A. said when he shelled out six million for the first one. Trouble was that all Chester A. knew about was worms. It soon became evident that he needed a good manager. Instead, he got Al Tiller. The first year Tiller managed the Cubs, Chester A. Rowdy bought three third basemen for a few millions dollars each.

When Al Tiller heard about it, he called Chester A. on the telephone. 'What am I supposed to do with three third basemen?' he said. 'Even if they're the best in the majors, I can only play them one at a time.'

'Well, hell,' said Chester A., 'I shouldn't have to tell you this, you're supposed to be a baseball manager, but it ain't no more than forty-five feet from third base to shortstop, and but another forty-five feet to second base; tell them fellas to adjust. For the amount I'm payin' them they better not argue about what position they get to play. Tell them that for a million dollars a year they got to adjust.'
...
When Chester A. purchased the three third basemen for him, Al Tiller lined them up at the center field wall and had them race to home plate. He made them race three times. Then he made a shortstop out of the fastest one, a second basemen out of the man who came second, while the slowest got to stay at third. He then arranged to trade the regular second baseman and shortstop in return for a good lefthanded starter and a relief pitcher named Bullet Boyd who could throw aspirins and was good for two innings every night of the season."

I suppose that idea - that a team could just buy the pennant by buying up all the best available players - was really common thinking back in the early days of free agency when this story was written, but I suspect that that opinion has changed in the last 15 years or so. There have been too many teams with high payrolls and high-priced free agents fail to make it through the postseason for us to believe otherwise.

In any case, "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" is a lot of fun to read, and I recommend you do so if you can. I've read a few other Kinsella books - Shoeless Joe, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy - and they have their moments, but his short fiction is really where it's at. The Thrill of the Grass has a few clunkers in it, but, along with a couple of other stories like "The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record" and "How I Got My Nickname", "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" more than makes up for it.

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