Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Dreamers Chapter 1 of 47

Chapter 1 The Dreamers

"Hey kid, the place is closed. No one is allowed in here after the park is closed." Gus Lollar made you fully aware of his presence and who was in charge. "Whadayawant in here anywaze," Gus barked?

I was immediately reminded that I was drafted into the Monarch organization, the dialect was unmistakable. "I'm Bill Alan, I hollered back." I was to report no later than Friday, but sitting around my grandparent's house was driving me crazy.

Gus stood about fifty feet down the tunnel from the playing field that I was surveying for the first time. "Come on down here kid," Gus said with a much more friendly tone in his voice.

As I walked down the tunnel toward Gus, I could sense a presence, almost ghost like, of former Monarchs greats that had also used their stay in this same ballpark to hone their baseball skills. Could it be that I belonged here in this same ballpark? Did I have what it took to make it to the bigs?

"Come on now Alan, stop daydreaming. I don't got all day ya know," Gus bellowed from the opening to the locker rooms.

The echo of Gus's voice resounding, swirling down through the tunnel snapped me from my thoughts of potential inadequacy. I started my trek toward Gus and the lockers wondering how many times Gus had made the same statement to other rookies. It must easily be two or three hundred times.

As I got closer to Gus, I could see his lips start to curl, and then his right hand became outstretched. "Alan, good to meet you and welcome to the Madison Monarchs. Your reputation precedes you," Gus warmly stated. "Come-on in. I got ya all situated with a locker in a good spot."

As I shook Gus's hand his face lit up just like it was Christmas morning on his tenth birthday. It was then that I realized that not only was Gus Lollar the Monarch’s clubhouse manager, a job he held for over 29 years, but he was also a fan. Gus was a true baseball fan, but you had to be to endure over 30 years in the bowels of a minor league ballpark. Hope always springs eternal, and I, Bill Alan, was to become Gus's hope for this new season.

"It's good to meet you," I said. "I've never been in a ballpark quite this big before. But, I guess I'd better get used to it in a hurry."

"Yuv got nottin to worry about," said Gus still smiling ear to ear. "Yur right, Alan, it’s a little bit different up here, but from what I hear, you got what it takes to make it in "AA" ball. Don't worry aboudit", Gus said as he turned and started walking toward the locker room.

I followed Gus as he pushed his way through the double swinging doors that led to the Monarch’s locker room. The room was huge by any standard. Around the rectangular room were cubicles with players names written on white tape stuck at the top of each space. Jones, Meyers, Bolton, Adams, on and on til I found Alan.

Each cubical was five feet wide, constructed of wood, and freshly painted a baby blue. The paint was so thick it probably equaled the thickness of the original wood. At the rear of the locker was a full width seat, and above it were four brass hooks. A full-width clothes pole was placed six feet from the floor and above it was a shelf.

I was so used to regular foot-wide "high school" lockers that this almost seemed such a disgusting waste of space.

While I was admiring my new territory Gus had sauntered off and returned with my entire uniform and a couple of towels. "I thought ya might like your old high school number so I got Dave Bolton to switch," Gus stated. Gus saw the expression on my face and was quick to respond, "Don't worry Alan, he wasn't mad or nuttin. All it took was a new glove, coupala new jockstraps and some new Nikes." Gus started laughing, so proud that he had pulled the greatest deal of all time.

"Thanks Gus", I said. "I'm glad I negotiated a contract BEFORE the Monarchs realize they have the shrewdest negotiator since Jack Donlan." Gus was laughing even harder now.

Gus started making his way to a door off to the left of the locker room. "Any place to get something to eat in this town?" I said to Gus.

He stopped at the doorway, turned and said, "Give me bout ten minutes kid and we'll have Gloria fix us sumthin at the Bluelight. OK?"

"Sure Gus, that will be great. I'll just unpack a few things and we can go."

Gus turned and entered the room and closed the door behind him. The door was one of those doors you see in "private eye" movies with the etched glass you can't see through. Across the middle of the glass in large black letters was painted "Manager, Private".

So that's where the infamous Red Dodge lived behind the scenes. Red Dodge, manager of the Madison Monarchs, that would be some meeting.

I sat down on the stool that was pushed into the corner of my locker, tugged the zipper on my smaller suitcase. I started emptying the contents on the seat at the back of the cubical. Two gloves, Wilson A2000 models, one brand new, the other so dark from being oiled so much that it flopped back and forth like a rag doll. I knew that I would have to start breaking in the new one, but I just couldn't part with that old glove that I had used all through Junior High and High School. It would serve as a good reminder of where I came from, and who I was, just in case my head ever got too big.

I thought back to when I first bought that glove. $48.50 that glove cost me! Over five weeks of paper route money back in 1961. It was Ron Santo's second year with the Chicago Cubs. Before Ronnie came up with the Cubs, I always wanted to be the shortstop because Ernie Banks WAS Mr. Cub long before anyone had thought of the name. But now Ron Santo was here, a potential star baseman with some sock in his bat.

More than anything else, I believed that it was Ron's strong personality that drew me to him. Fiercely competitive, you could sense that he did not take to losing easily. This was the same quality that I thought I possessed. I now know that I was just hot tempered and that it had nothing to do with an intense desire to win or team spirit. But, at fourteen years old, what did I know and who was anybody to tell ME differently.

Santo used the Wilson A2000 so that was the glove I would use. Good enough for Santo, good enough for Alan, I thought. My love for Ron Santo went so deep that if I had known what deodorant, soap, jockstrap, foot spray, and antifungal cream he used, I would have used it too. Sometimes you become so superstitious you really believe that things like that make a difference. I don't anymore, but at fourteen I sure did.

"Hey kid," yelled Gus. "I thought you were gunna unpack some yer stuff. I thought you were hungry."

"I am," I replied as I awoke from my coma. I then realized that I hadn't accomplished anything in over twenty minutes. "I'm sorry Gus," but then he interrupted. "Don't worry aboudit kid; you weren't the first or nuttin. Let's get some grub, whadya say?"

"OK, Gus, you're the boss," I said as I soaked in his warm smile. "Would you like me to drive? My car is right out front."

That'll be great. Now my old lady doesn’t have to make the trip. She hates the trip. She hates this place. Never liked baseball like we do, Alan. I thought it might grow on her, but it never did."

I could see the sadness surface on Gus's face. Men love to come home from a day at the office and dump the entire day's happenings in their spouses lap. It is some form of therapy; I'm sure, one that was never prescribed for Gus. I could then realize how lonely Gus was and why he spent so much time at the ballpark. He loved it here. He was safe. It was his whole life.

Gus flipped off the lights as we pushed our way through the double doors out of the locker room. The clicking of our heels made the sound you might hear down a lonely, deserted alley on a rainy night. I could almost imagine Bogart throwing down his lit cigarette, then snuffing it out with his left shoe. The he would disappear into the night with the collar of his raincoat pulled up on his neck.

"Bill, what kinda car you driving? Ya got one of dem fancy German mochines, or what?" Gus smiled as he inquired about my mode of transportation. He knew I signed one of the largest bonus contracts the Monarchs ever dropped on a high school player. He also figured that I was like other players and blew it on fast cars, fast women and fast living.

"Sorry if I disappointed you Gus," I said. "That's my black Taurus Wagon over there. I know it isn't a Benz or BMW. I hope you're not disappointed. Gus smiled a little apologetically.

"I didn't mean nuttin, Bill," he said. "It's just that most of these guys think they're God's gift to the Monarchs or something. They come strutting in here like they already made it. Big cars, fancy suits and clothes like they should be pimping in the Bronx.

"Hey Gus, that is NOT MY STYLE," I replied in a firm voice. "I came here to learn how to play baseball. My only agenda is to make it to the big leagues. There may be time for that stuff later, but right now it doesn't interest me."

Gus sensed that he had touched a raw nerve with me and he had. "Alan, don't take me wrong,” Gus said as he raised his hand as if to stop the next words coming out of my mouth. "I didn't mean you were some kinda primadonna or nuttin. It's just that I've seenum come and go over the years. Some of them had no talent to start with, but others just screwed away a good opportunity. A smile started to stretch back across his face. "I just don't want that to happen to you, Bill." "You have more talent at this stage of your career than anyone I've ever seen step into this ballpark. You could be the first pitcher/ full time player in major league history. I just want you to have the best shot at it you could have, that's all." As he finished talking he put his big, thick hand on my neck and shoulders and gave me an affectionate squeeze.

"I know, Gus." "That's all I want too. Let's get some of that good food you said Gloria can cook up for us. You don't mind if I treat do you? That's not too extravagant is it, Gus?" I said.

"Naw. Go ahead kid. It may be the best investment you'll ever make." With that, I opened the passenger door and Gus slid into the bucket seat. As I walked around the front of the car Gus and I both looked at each other. We both knew he had just made a very important statement. Only I did not know just how important it really was to become.

I pulled the Taurus wagon into the Bluelight parking lot. Every town in America has one just like it, and probably someone just like Gloria bussing the counter, I thought.

In the parking lot were mostly old pickup trucks, and old Pinto with rusted rocker panels and a Central Connecticut State University decal in the back window. One of the trucks had a gun rack in the back window with what looked like two shotguns mounted with Master combination locks securing them in the rack. If the driver of the truck needed a weapon to defend him self in a hurry, those rifles were certainly out of the question.

The outside of the diner was one of those polished metal models. This type of diner reminded me of an old Silver Streak model train engine that I got when I was eight years old for Christmas. The entry way to the diner jutted out like the nose on your face. There were two doors, one on either side of this entry way, and one main swinging door directly into the diner.

Once inside the diner, the smells of coffee and cigarette smoke over took your senses. A counter ran the full length of the diner separated in the center to accommodate traffic from the grill to the booths that lined the area by the front windows. Two stainless steel coat racks rose like pillars to signal your entrance to the Bluelight Diner.

The left counter was home to three men in plaid wool coats and baseball hats that said John Deere across the front. They spotted Gus and me right away. The tallest one smiled at Gus and said, "Hey, Gus, howya doing. Come on over here and let me buy you and your buddy a cup of coffee." "Hi, Jack," Gus replied while grabbing my elbow and ushering me toward the counter.

"Who's your friend?" Jack asked. "Jack, I'd like you to meet Billy Alan, our newest member of the Madison Monarchs," Gus beamed.

"Nice to meet you, Bill. I'm Jack Cramer. This is Art Crowley, and next to him is Jake Conlan." We all shook hands and took a place at the counter.

"Bill just got into town tonight fellas, and we got a little situated over at the ball park and decided to get a bite to eat."

"Jack. This is the kid I was tellin ya about. Mr.
Everything back in Illinois." Gus emphasized the "s" at the end of Illinois like it was the most important letter in the name.

"Ya know, Bill, you're all Gus here has talked about for the last two months around here. Ya think Steinbaum puts pressure on his players? Ya ain't seen nothing yet." They all started laughing. So did I.

"I hope I live up to the advance billing," I responded toward my three new friends. "I'm sure I've never experienced any pressure like what lies directly in front of me but I'm looking forward to it. I guess if you're going to play for the Yankees you'd better get used to it in a hurry."

"You're right about that," stated Jack matter of factly. "Gus thinks you have what it takes, if that makes you feel any better." I could see Gus becoming a little embarrassed by the direction of this conversation. I was sure Gus had developed some opinions about me that he freely expressed to these gentlemen on many occasions. Opinions that he developed on his own without ever speaking with me once. or for that matter, before he had ever met me.

"Well, fellas, I'm looking forward to the challenge. I know that the jump from High School baseball right into Class AA professional ball is a big one. I'll give it all I've got. I'm sure Gus is going to be a big help to me in learning the ropes as fast as I can."

Jack smiled. "The people associated with this ball club from Gus all the way to the top, are all first class in my book," he firmly stated. "If you have the ability, these people will mold you into a fine major league ball player."

Art Crowley chirped in, "God know the Monarchs need someone to turn that team in the Bronx around. I hope you're it, kid."

"Don't worry about it Art. This kid is all I've said and more. You're gonna hear a lot about Billy Alan for a long time to come,” said Gus matter of factly. "Hey fellas, the kid is gonna starve to death while we push him into the Hall of Fame. Here's a menu, Bill. Decide what you'd like."

I took the menu Gus had pulled from between the sugar glass and the napkin holder. It was one of those plastic laminated, pre-printed cardboard menus. Tape had been placed across the original prices, with ballpoint pen signifying that even the Bluelight was not exempt from inflation. The menu was sticky from all the handling from fingers dipped into maple syrup, ice cream, Coke, and other famous confections. I quickly surveyed the standard listings. There were hamburgers with six different names, mashed potatoes with roast beef and gravy, grilled cheese, veal cutlet, cube steak, about a dozen of Campbell's best soups and a listing of deserts to top off a wonderful evening of exquisite dining.

"What'll it be Bill?" asked Gus. "It may not be the most delicious meal you ever ate, but the food is good, and the price is right, and the people are real. You'll learn to appreciate this place in a short while. You'll see,” said Gus.

I sensed that Gus was either embarrassed for bringing me here, or that he felt that I was used to eating in better places that the Bluelight.

"Gus," I said, "this place is just fine. You don't need to apologize to me for this place. I prefer to eat in places like this than in some fancy restaurant. Don't worry about me."

Gus smiled as he leaned over the counter. "Now if we can just get some service around here, we can get this show on the road."

Impatiently Gus got up from his bar stool at the counter and went to where he could see into the grill. There was a rectangular cut out in the wall with a small counter where the cook spun the next meal to the waitresses. Above the counter was the typical array of spinning lazy-Susan order ticket rack. A rather crude, but effective way of communicating the culinary choices of the many patrons of the Bluelight Diner.

"Hey Gloria, Mel, anybody home?" shouted Gus into the grill area.

"How ya doin Gus," Mel shouted back. "Good to see you." "Come on out here. Got someone I wantya to meet." Out from the gill came this man about five feet five inches tall and well over 250 pounds. This had to be Mel. He was wearing white pants and a "V" neck tee shirt with billows of gray and black chest hair foaming out. He had on a filthy chef's apron that had been collecting the droppings of a hard days work. He was totally bald except for a wedge of gray hair just above his ears that wrapped all the way around the back of his head. The black rimmed bifocals were pushed down toward the end of his nose, and were accented by a dark, pencil thin mustache, like Clark Gable used to wear.

"Whattsamatter Gus, you finally bring us a celebrity into our fine establishment, or what?" joked Mel.

"Just come on over here and meet Billy Alan, a new player for the Monarchs," stated Gus. "Good to meet you. Any friend of Gus's is a friend of mine. We don't get too many players to frequent the joint. Not spiffy enough for em, I guess."

"This place is fine for me," I said. "No need to be apologetic. It's nice to meet you. I know it's pretty late, can we still get something to eat?"

The clock on the wall showed that it was well past eleven p.m. on Saturday night. "No problem, we usually are open til well past one in the morning," Mel was quick to inform me. "What'll it be?"

As I began to tell Mel what I was hungry for, I heard the door to the grill begin to swing back and forth. Moving toward our end of the counter was a girl. No, it was a woman who was working her way toward us. At first she wasn't paying any attention to us, but then she looked up and saw that I was staring at her.

Could this be Gloria, THE Gloria that Gus had mentioned to me? She was young, beautiful, and putting the stress test to every seam on her waitress uniform. She had auburn hair that had been permed into flowing waves that fell to just below her ears. Her skin was like porcelain with just the right amount of blush accentuating her high cheek bones. Very little eye make-up, and just a touch of lipstick to high light her perfectly formed lips. How could a girl, I mean woman, look this good after working all day? This wasn't what I was expecting to find. I was expecting to find someone Gus's age, not my own, and certainly not this beautiful.

I don't know how long I had been staring but it must have been a considerable length of time because Gloria was becoming a bit uneasy. She stopped at the end of the counter to our right and frantically searched for some work to accomplish. She seemed to realize the only thing she could do was to fill the sugar jars and started to unscrew the top to the first one.

"Gloria, stop messing with the jar and come over here," said Mel. "Bill Alan, I'd like to introduce you to Gloria James. Gloria, meet Bill Alan, newest member of the Monarchs."

"Hi, Bill," said Gloria in a voice so soft and warm it would have melted a block of ice. "Hi Gloria," I responded, hoping that my voice didn't either crack or sound like Mickey Mouse. "It's very nice to meet you."

"Gloria, Gus and Bill would like something to eat. Why don't you take their orders and I'll go back and fire up the grill in the meantime, OK? said Mel with a big smile on his face.

Gloria grabbed an order pad and pencil from the back counter in front of the milk dispenser and started scribbling what was probably our counter location and the date. She was so nervous she forgot that we were the only people eating in the whole place, and was not likely to forget who ordered what.

Her soft brown eyes finally lifted off the pad. It seemed to take forever. "Bill, what could I get for you?" she said softly.

Oh, Gloria! Why did you have to say it like that, I thought to myself and buried my eyes back in the menu.

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