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Thursday, May 18, 2006 02:32 pm

The last rhubarb

A veteran manager reveals the secrets of America’s pastime

Brad Dood (pronounced “dude”) settled into a smirk. “Right place! Right time! Right stuff! No one more deserving,” he thought. “I’ve paid my dues!” Humiliating dues for someone so talented; he’d spent four months in this godforsaken place, just so he could get his foot in the sportswriting door. He’d even suffered a degrading day job selling shoes to the local farm boys so he’d be free to attend the minor-league Thunder Crows’ games at night. Brad Dood was a “stringer,” meaning that he’d phone in the results to a wire service after the game. He always gave them a column’s worth in the grand style of It was a hot Appalachian night with no summer breeze. Then a stadium-shaking wind roared out of the mountain sky — a 92-mph fastball from the muscled right arm of John Sampson, the. . . . The grand style never found print. At most, the next day’s newspapers would read: Class A Appalachian League results: Thunder Crows 5, Bearcats 1. John Sampson pitched a two-hitter for the Crows. Usually they just listed the score in small print, page 37. Brad Dood vowed that they’d pay for slighting his prose. The wire service paid Brad Dood $10 a game for his stringer work. Now his time in jerkwater purgatory was over. He was “destined” to return to civilization, to become the celebrity writer he was fated to be. He’d been suggesting an idea to the wire service from day one. He’d have “Rhubarb” Mills, the Crows’ coach, tape-record his 55-year adventure in the low minor leagues. Dood would write it, submitting a piece of it everyday. They didn’t buy it! But he’d lied to Rhubarb, told him Sports Illustrated was interested, that this could be Rhubarb’s legacy, his gift to the game. Rhubarb agreed to the legacy. It was a ruse well placed, for the old goat could weave one hell of a tale, with stories that were surprisingly insightful at times. Dood had heard a few — told over stale beers, in stale bars, after stale games. Once primed, Rhubarb drained words for hours on end — an open faucet of great entertainment. “No tiring clichés,” he instructed Rhubarb, “and we need some ‘serious.’ Try it as introduction, maybe why you stayed so long in the game — especially given the hand-to-mouth miserable pay. Think about it before you ramble on. Of course, we need the bar stories, too. They’re priceless.” “You mean like in ’78 when Chili-Boy Barnes was slidin’ into second — and a mule deer jumped the fence and . . . ?” “Exactly!” said Brad. “Perfect, my good friend.” “Good friend” was far from truth, for Brad Dood was thinking, as he said it, “There’s no mystery why Rhubarb lived hand to mouth for 55 minor-league years: He’s an idiot! Just like all the other idiots hereabouts — ought to be illegal for them to reproduce.” Two months later, the bough finally bent Dood’s way. Opportunity walked in and gifted him a byline wrapped in gold print. Rhubarb kicked the bucket: heart attack, during a game, during a “rhubarb” — a heaven-sent lede. Brad Dood pretended concern on his outside, even as his inside smiled ear to ear. Other folks stood teary-eyed as Rhubarb spent his last breath, but Brad Dood went to Rhubarb’s locker to get his “tape to fame.” As luck would have it, Rhubarb told him, just before the game, he’d finished his recording. This time Dood didn’t have to call the wire service — they called him. They’d heard of Rhubarb’s demise and wanted a half-page story, pronto. Payback time. Dood told them where they could “pronto” their half-page. He didn’t need ’em any more, for what he had here, on tape, in hand, really was of Sports Illustrated value, at the very least! A little editing, a little embellishment (wasn’t as if a “stiff” could rat him out), and Dood pictured a book. Add gratuitous sex, saturate it with hip-hop, and there could be a sophomoric movie over his rainbow horizon. And what a title he’d divined: The Last Rhubarb. He’d sell to the highest bidder — and, as good luck would have it twice over, he’d not have to share a dime of it with a dead idiot. Brad Dood sat back, lit the cigar he’d purchased with his last $5, and played the tape, opening the faucet to his celebrity. Raymond “Rhubarb” Mills spoke from the machine: “Ya got a round bat and a round ball — just hit the sumbitch square!” A silent minute, then: “When ya think about it, that says it all. No need to ramble on. So that’ll be the last. Rhubarb.”
With the cigar smoking to ash, Brad Dood muttered the word “dude” several times as he listened to the tape play through two long painful hours of not another word.
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