Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Man Who Killed Baseball (Notes from an alternate universe

The Man Who Killed Baseball

“1918,” my father said, coughing, a soft spray of blood coming out of his mouth, and he heaved one more time, as if all the pain of those years was released from his body, and he could finally rest, no longer cursing Harry Frazee, who Dad called “The man who killed baseball.”

It was January of 2004. My father, a lifelong smoker, a condition he blamed on “those god danm Yankees,” had finally succumbed to the lung cancer he had been warned about his entire life.

When we sat in the doctor’s office the previous July, when he was given the news, and told his condition was terminal, he looked up to the heavens, and said “just let them win this once.”

I was sitting with him in the hospital late that night when his dream died. Bret Boone took a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. His spirit disapeered into the early autumn night with that ball; it took his body three winter months to catch up.

I got my love of baseball from my father, and my love of science, and may I immodestly say brilliance, from my mother. What brought these two mismatched lovers together I do not know, but when I was 12, and the plane carrying her home from a conference in Vienna disapeered into the Mediterranean, my father and I weren’t just conjoined through baseball, but mutual heartbreak

It was at that time that I first began to dream of time travel, to appear in that airport, to stop her from getting on that plane, that would make everything right again.

I stopped playing baseball then, I stopped playing everything. My worried father would tell the therapists I spent all my time with my head in science books, unless I was at his side watching a ball game. He thought I was trying to escape into a world of my own.

But the world I was escaping into wasn’t one of my own, but our own, where we would be together as a family again. Despite my devoting every free second to the pursuit of time travel, I made no progress.

I did, however, keep my grades high enough to be admitted into MIT where I fell under the tutelage of Professor Zeigler, a brilliant man who had secretly worked in the field of time travel to bring back his parents, lost in the holocaust.

I will not bother you with the details, there is no way to begin without following it to the end, and it would take volumes. Suffice it to say that slowly the Professor and I made progress.

Our goal was to move an inanimate object a few seconds ahead in time. We decided on a pencil. We laid it in our time traveling chamber, set the coordinates for ten seconds ahead, and then turned the dial, and waited, but nothing happened.
We tried for several weeks. Occasionally the pencil would fade, but come back. Professor Zeigler, a man blessed like my father, with a beautiful, intelligent wife, began to doubt the wisdom of continuing the project. “If there is one thing playing with time has taught me is that there is so little of it,” he said, as he put his scarf on one day and left me alone.

I continued to make slight adjustments to the machine. I worked for weeks alone. Occasionally Professor Zeigler would stop by, but my lack of progress caused him to lose interest.

I was alone, late at night, holding the pencil, when I realized that we were going about it wrong, we couldn’t go forward into something that hadn’t happened. We needed to go back.

We had assumed going forward would be easier to prove, but, if I bit this pencil, then sent it back five minutes, I would have two pencils with identical bite marks and would have proven time travel possible.

With shaking hands I put the pencil to my mouth and began to chew on it. I then placed it in the machine. It was 11:45 PM. I set the coordinates for the pencil to appear at 11:40 PM in Room 213 of the MIT main laboratory, next door where I was working. I prayed for success. I clicked the mouse to send, and looked down at the pencil. It shimmered once, twice, and then was back, and I thought I had failed.

I got up and opened the door to the room 213, turned on the lights and began searching. After a fruitless 20-minute search I turned to leave when I saw something lying under the instructor’s desk. I had to get down on my hands and knees to reach for it.

It was a pencil, I could tell that, and when I brought it into the light, I saw the teeth marks. I stood using the desk to keep me from swooning. I knew it was the same pencil, but to be sure, I had to compare them.

With the pencil in my left hand I ran into the lab and opened the machine with my right, holding the two pencils near one another, and then I saw a blinding light, and felt myself falling into darkness.

When I awoke my father was sitting by my bed. He began to hurriedly gather doctors and nurses who asked me hundreds of questions then consulted, then talked to my father, who came back smiling. “They say you are going to be all right,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked trying to sit up in bed, and then going back down as my head throbbed.

“The building exploded,” my father said. “Danmdest thing, they can’t figure out why.”

I tried to clear the fog in my mind. “The pencil,” I said.

“A pencil?” my father looked at me quizzically. “A pencil did not blow a hole in the side of that building.”

Yes it did.

I asked him if Professor Zeigler had been by to see me.

“Only every day, he’s really concerned about you.”

“Find him, tell him I need to see him,” I said.

“The Doctors say what you need is rest.”

“Dad, please, find him, and tell him it’s about the pencil.”

My father looked at me shaking his head then stood. “If you would rather spend time with your professor buddy than me,” he said.

“Dad, please, after I see the professor we can spend the rest of the day together, I just need to talk to him about the explosion.”

My father put a comforting hand on my knee and then left.

I fell asleep and when I awoke the Professor was next to my bed, a scowl across his face.

“You sent the pencil backwards didn’t you?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“We were only going to send things forward.”

“But I thought it would be easier to prove, and it was, I did it.”

The professor sighed. “Yes you did, and when you brought two pencils both made of the same matter together you caused an explosion that blew up the lab. You were very lucky to survive.”

I began to ask and he held up his hand. “The machine is gone, there is nothing left.”

I sunk down on the bed, my eyes filling with tears. He put a hand on my wrist. “It’s all right, you proved something to me, we can’t go back to a time where we exist. I was born during the holocaust, if I met myself, the explosion would be much larger than one caused by two pencils, it could be of nuclear proportions.”

“So it’s over,” I said.

“I’m afraid it is.”

We sat in silence. “What if we went back even further?” I asked.

“Once we begin to change history the ramifications could affect the entire world, both good and bad.”

I sat up in the bed, ignoring the pain. “What if we stopped the death of Arch Duke Ferdinand, stopping World War I, no Treaty of Versailles, no reason for Hitler to rise to power. We could stop the Holocaust. World War I, World War II. We have in our grasp the power to bring peace to the world.”

“We don’t know what power we have,” he said. “What history would be written if Ferdinand did not die?”

“But we could find out,” I said. “At least let me return to work on the machine, chances are I won’t get it to work again anyway, but if I do, then we can decide.”

“This would be a full time proposition, then is no money in it, how will you survive?”

“My Dad will let me stay with him, there’s still money left from my mother’s estate.”

He rubbed his beard. “You were doing this because of your mother, the pencils have proven you cannot save her, why are you still obsessed with its success?”

I hadn’t realized that, and spent several minutes thinking. “But I could see her,” I said quietly. “See her before I was born.”

He shook his head. “We will talk later of this my friend,” he said rising. “Your father is in the hall, acting like a jealous boyfriend, I shall let him back in, and I shall think of your proposition, although I think it will be the ruin of us all.”

My father came in and sat down, sulking, until I began to talk about the Sox, which started him on one of his rants, and I could continue to brood over the time machine.

Two days later, as I was about to be released, Professor Ziegler returned, and placed a check for $250,000 on the table. “Use this money to build your machine,” he said. “Under the condition that you do not use it unless I am there.”

I picked the check up with shaking hands, unable to find the words to thank him, but he was already moving towards the door.

“And one other thing,” he said. “Make it large enough for a human to be transported.”

He passed my father on the way out, who did not acknowledge the professor. He asked me what was in my hand but I quickly shoved it into my pocket and told him it was just a note.

I spent two weeks at home, convincing my father that I was resting while I put together every bit of information I had backed up on to my personal computer about the time machine.

I found a classified advertising a tanning salon that was closing and I rented it and moved my computers there. I told my father I would be managing it, and while he found it an odd choice, I knew he would never visit.

Truthfully the doors were never unlocked. For 14 hours a day I would stay locked inside rebuilding the machine, and using one of the tanning beds as the transporter.
Looking back, I realize it took three years to build. During that time I was unaware the passage of time, only the Sox season.

Finally it was ready for testing, and I called the cell phone number scrawled on the back of the Christmas card I had received from the Professor, who now lived in Cape Cod, having retired.

Before I could say a word he asked if it was ready and I said yes. He told me he would contact me again and not to touch it.

I spent the next week in the empty saloon, with the machine, being more tempted to use it every day, until one night, just when I was going to close, there was a rapping at the door.

I opened it and saw the professor, balder, now walking with a cane. He hurried past me without saying hello and put his hands on the transporter.

“You used a tanning bed?” he asked.

“I needed something for human transport, with an electrical base.”

He nodded then sat down at the computer. “Do we set the coordinates the same way?” he asked.

I said we did and he began opening windows, setting his time of leaving, in five minutes!

“You are going to use this now?” I asked.

“What better time?” he asked setting his landing point in Warsaw Poland, at a certain longitude and latitude, in 1924.

“We should test it on an animal, a pencil, something!” I said, partly in worry for my mentor, partly because I felt like a father watching someone play with his child for the first time.

“There is only one way to prove this works,” he said setting his return time for two minutes. “And that is to do it ourselves.”

He walked over to the tanning bed and opened it. “I have never climbed into one of these, it is like a coffin isn’t it?”

I grabbed his frail arm. “Hold on. I can’t let you do this.”

“Young man,” he said sternly. “I funded your little project, now it is my time to see if it works, that was our agreement, now are you going to help me get into this contraption?”

I took his arm and he climbed in and lay on the bed. “Does the top have to be closed?” I looked at the computer, and told him yes, but we still had two minutes.

“Why are you doing this? Why Poland? Why 1922? Why two minutes.”]

He lay back, as if, indeed, he was in a coffin with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Miriam is dying,” he said, his eyes staring upwards, filling with tears. “Pancreatic cancer, there is nothing to be done.”

“And what can be done in Poland in 1922?”

“She was born on the land I will be visiting, and she has told me of a lily field outside her window there. The most beautiful lilies. When the Nazi’s came and took her they trampled those lilies. What she would not give to see them again. What I would not risk to make it happen.”

I felt my eyes moisten. “We don’t know what will happen,” I said.

“Whatever happens will be for love, how can something done for love be wrong?”
I nodded, and shut the top. I watched with one eye the clock count down, and the other on him, waiting, to go back to a time before he was born.

The count down hit zero and then the tanning bed began to glow. I heard the Professor gasp. His entire body became rigid. I went to open the tanning bed but I couldn’t. Then in horror I saw him disappear.

I went to the computer as it counted the time until his return. Each second crept by as I turned from looking at the bed to the computer until the clock read 0:00.

I looked back in the bed. The Professor lay in the same position he had left, but on his chest was a beautiful lily.

I grabbed a hold of the top and ripped it open. His eyes were shut. I called out his name. I felt his hands, which were warm. His eyes opened. He saw me. He began to laugh, and continued to until tears fell from his eyes.

“Get me out of this thing!” he said. I reached down. “Be careful of the flower!” he shouted. I got him standing, and held on to him, as his balance had been affected.

A bright smile came across his face. “It was surprisingly cold,” he said. My brow furrowed. “In Poland, in 1922, very cold, I really didn’t dress for it.”

I pulled out my chair and told him to sit. I then squatted before him like he was a religious icon. “Tell me everything,” I said.

“At first, I thought you had killed me. I floated, for five, ten seconds, and then I slowly began to focus, on the cold ground, the blue sky, the grass, and I looked to my left, and there were the lilies. I could reach out and touch them; they were so golden, so beautiful. Then I plucked one. It smelled perfect.” He held it to his nose. “It still does, smell it,” I tentatively did. “I did not know how much time had elapsed, and I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I laid back on the grass and waited, and began to float again, and landed in your marvelous contraption.”

He stood and wrapped me in a hug. I had never known him to show such affection. “I have to go see her now, I have to bring her this,” he said. He then grabbed my face and kissed me on the lips. I was too stunned to say anything. I fell back in the chair smiling. Then I too began to laugh. I had done it.

I opened a word document and began to type out ideas of changes we could make with this wonderful machine, and also safeguards we would have to take to make sure it was never ill used.

I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there when the door opened and the Professor, his suit disheveled, entered, his eyes filled with tears, his face red with anger. “What did you do?” he yelled rushing at me, and then he began to hit me with his frail hands.

I took his blows then grabbed his hands. I carefully spun him around and lowered him until he was seated. “What happened?” I asked. His face collapsed. He put his face in his hands and he wept.

I patted his back and tried to talk to him, then got him some tissue, and water. He sat back, then saw the machine and began pounding on it. I had to hold him again and his feet began to kick at the computer. “Curse that machine, destroy it, destroy it now!” he yelled.

I wheeled the chair from the machine and put my arms on either side of him as he began to weep again. “You have to tell me what happened. Did Muriel not want the flower?”

He looked up at me coldly. “There is no Muriel,” he said. “There’s a Harriet, there’s a Harriet in my home, in my kitchen, in my wedding pictures. There’s no Muriel!” he screamed hysterically. “There’s Harriet, I don’t know a Harriet!” he began to weep again.

“Of course you do dear,” a woman said.

I turned to see an elderly woman, with a cane, standing in the doorway. “We have been married for 45 years,” she said.

“No!” the Professor shouted, stumbling backwards, holding up his hands, until he was in the far corner of the room.

“Tell him!” she said looking at me, her face contorted in fear. “Tell him I am his wife.”

But I couldn’t. I had never met the woman before.

She kept walking towards him. “Keep away from me, keep away from me!” he cried sinking to the floor and weeping. I went to him and lifted him, but his eyes had glassed over, and he stared ahead. I carried him to the tanning bed, the only place I had to lie him down, and called 911.

They said they would be there shortly. I bent down over the Professor, who stared into space, while the woman claiming to be his wife begged him to speak. “Tell him, tell him!” she said to me.

Then her face grew angry. “He said he was coming here to see you, and then he comes back with some flower, and he doesn’t know me. What did you do to him? What is that contraption he is in?”

“It’s just a tanning bed,” I said to the stranger. “I don’t know where he got the flower, we just talked about my future, that is all,” I said lying. I wanted to tell her the truth, and if I had any idea who she was I would have.

The paramedics came first, followed by the police, who took his “wife’s” statement first, and then mine. The police asked me about the tanning bed attached to all the cables. I said I was doing a study on the effects of tanning. While I didn’t think he believed me, he was also not interested in discovering the truth.

I visited the Professor the next day. While his wife was cold to me, rightfully blaming me for what had happened to her husband, I was able to find out that his brilliant mind had suffered such a shock that it had shut down, perhaps forever. I wanted to say goodbye to my old friend, and to assure him, even if he couldn’t understand, that I would never use the machine again. But the wife stood in the doorway, making certain I understood my presence was not welcome.

I went back to the salon with every intention of destroying the machine, but I couldn’t. I did unhook the cables and carefully store them in the back room, and then moved the table away from the bed when an envelope fell to the floor.

I picked it up off the floor and saw written in the Professor’s flowing script “Miriam.” I opened the envelope, and took out the blank card. I opened it.

“My dearest Miriam:

“If I do not return I am sure my able assistant shall return this to you. I went on a mission of the utmost urgency, to make you smile that beautiful smile once again, and if I shall not return, then take comfort that your days are numbered too, and when you enter the brilliant light of eternity, it will be I waiting for you, holding one perfect lily from the world’s one perfect garden, and then we will eternally sleep together.”

I don’t know how long I stared at the card. I went to shred it, and then stopped, and slipped it into my jacket pocket, just as proof that she did exist, once, and as a beacon of hope that someday that love could return.

I could destroy it all, the computer, the tanning bed, even track down all the back up discs I had made, but I could never erase the ability from my mind. The only way to thoroughly destroy the machine was to destroy me, and I was far too much a coward to do that.

I did need to know how the Professor’s two minutes in 1922 caused Miriam to never be born. It took days of internet searches until I found a reference.

It was on a poorly written site dedicated to the paranormal that said an Ethel Grossman, of Warsaw, a 24 year old woman, at home with her husband, was sitting by a window looking out a the lily fields, when, she swore, a man appeared, dressed in a suit. He picked a lily, and just as quickly disapeered.

Young Ethel could not convince her husband of what she had seen, and he, worried that her fantasies would interfere with his business interests, had her put in a sanitarium where she remained the rest of her days.

There was a picture of the couple just after their marriage posted besides the story. I knew the picture well. It had sat on the mantel at the Professor’s home. A perfectly preserved picture of Miriam’s parents.

I shut down the computer, gathered my belongings, and left the tanning salon, planning on never going back. I continued to pay the rent each month from my mother’s trust, and would still tinker in my mind of modifications I could make.

The Professor died a year later, and at his funeral I met Greta, his daughter. The professor had been childless until his trip to Poland, so we had somehow created a life.

And that life changed my life. She told me stories about the Professor I couldn’t have possibly known, and I did the same. Soon we were inseparable. Despite the prostrations of her mother we were married less than a year after the Professor’s death.

I took a job teaching at the University, and never told Greta about the empty tanning salon that I was still renting, what it contained, or the trip her father had taken that had changed all our lives.

Six months after my son was born my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. I spent hours every day at the hospital as he slowly wasted away, until the day he finally passed, with 1918 on his lips.

I stood at the internment next to Greta holding my son, two gifts given to me by that machine, while looking at the box that contained my father’s discontented soul, and I heard a voice whispering through the leafless skeleton trees. “Go back.”

That night I told Greta I needed time alone. I went to an old cigar box and took out a key. I also took out a small purple bag. I kissed her goodbye.

I drove to the tanning salon. I booted the now ancient computer. I logged on to the internet. I did a search, looking for one day, when I could have one minute with the man, and change the course of my father’s life.

I opened the bag and tried to calculate to see it I had enough. I set the date, Christmas day, 1919. The place, an alley off of Park Avenue. The time 6:00 AM. Duration, six hours, most of which would be in hiding. Departure in ten minutes.

I used that time to write out a letter to Greta explaining everything if I did not come back. But it was a chance I had to take for my father.

I then laid down and waited, my heart racing, sweat dripping from my skin, and I began to pray, because I was breaking all of the Lord’s laws.

Then I felt myself floating, and then cold, extreme cold, and wet, and I sat up. There was snow and ice under me, it was dark, the wind slammed down the alley cutting through me. I was in New York. It was 1918. Across the street lived the one man who could make my father’s life complete, and hopefully, in my pocket, was enough to convince him to do so.

I stayed in that alley five hours, trying to keep myself from freezing, and from just going to that door and knocking on it, interrupting whatever Christmas festivities may be ongoing. I had one hour left, and I had to make a decision soon.

Then the door opened, and the man came out, bundled against the cold. I was, at first, too stunned to move, then I did, despite the protests of my cold legs and feet.

“Mr. Frazee! Mr Frazee!” I yelled.

The startled man stopped. “Well my God young man you came out of nowhere.”
I didn’t acknowledge my appearance. “Sir, five minutes of your time. I know you are going to sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees tomorrow.”

“And good riddance too! That man is nothing but a nuisance. Glad to be rid of the drunken buffoon, leaving my team on the last day of the season. I can’t have that. And I don’t want to listen to someone defending him either.” He turned to leave.

I took his arm. “Unhand me before I call a constable!” he said.

I let him go, reached into my pocket, and pulled out the purple bag. “There is $150,000 in gold coins in this bag Mr. Frazee, which I will give to you, on your word that you will never cut or trade Babe Ruth.”

“What is this foolishness?” he asked.

“$150,000 for nothing. It’s yours. I know the league is putting pressure on you, I know the Globe has taken out a lien on you for Fenway Park, this takes care of all your problems, and all you have to do, is not trade or cut Babe Ruth.”

Frazee took the bag and looked inside. “This is the most damn fool thing anyone has ever said to me you know that don’t you?”

“You do this,” I told him, “and you will be remembered as a hero.”

“Does it have to be Ruth, he is a drunk, he has no respect for the game, all he cares about is money.”

“Yes,” I said. “If you trade or cut him, I will take this money back, now do we have an agreement as gentlemen?”

He looked at the money. “If this weren’t Christmas I would have you locked up in Bellevue,” he said. “All right sir,” he took my bare right had in his expensively gloved one, and shook it. “I will not sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees, or anyone else tomorrow, nor shall I cut or trade him. You have a deal.”

“Thank you sir, you will not regret this,” I said. “I must now go, and you must never speak of this transaction or my presence hear again, do you understand?”

“Well who would believe me?” he asked. “You have yourself a Merry Christmas,” he turned and walked up Park Avenue.

I went back to the alley. I had more than 40 minutes to wait and they were the longest of my life. What had I done?

I don’t know if it was from the strain, or from the cold, but I fell asleep, and when I awoke I was in the tanning bed.

I opened it and ran outside. I got in the car and quickly drove home and what I saw made my heart stop. My father’s old Chrysler was parked in front of the house.

I ran inside. He was talking to Greta, sweet Greta, still there, looking at our son. Tears fell from my eyes.

“Son, I know I shouldn’t have just shown up,” but I cut him short as I wrapped him in a bear hug.

“Whoa,” he said. “After five years I wasn’t expecting you to talk to me never mind this,” he said.

I released the hug and held him by his frail shoulders. “Five years, what are you talking about?”

A hand went to his face. “Oh God don’t tell me you’ve turned out to be a drunk like your old man.”

“A drunk? You hardly ever drink.”

He pulled away from me. “There you go again with your wise-guy stuff.” He began to shout. “Let me tell you sonny boy it took me years of meetings to get to the point where I can face you and you’re just going to crack jokes at my expense.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry Greta, it was nice to meet you and the little fella but I never should have thought I could get through his thick skull.”

I was too stunned to move. “You have to follow him,” Greta said.

I did. “Dad!” I called as he was putting the key in his car door lock. He ignored me opening it. I caught up to him.

“Dad, help me understand, what was it that led to your drinking?”

“You know as well as I do that it was your mother’s death, and you’re ignoring me afterwards, always pouring over those science books. A man gets lonely at night. It’s no excuse for drinking, but still.”

“But what about watching the Sox Dad?”

He slapped me. I felt my eyes fill with tears. He had never hit me.

“I may be a lot of things but I never raised you to be cruel,” he said, his voice breaking. “You can get treatment for being a drunk, but you get nothing for being cruel.” He got in the car. “Oh, and not that you cared, but it seemed I stopped drinking a little too late, my liver’s gone, doctor gives me two months, don’t make a special trip to the funeral.”

I watched him speed off. I could not move from the spot. Greta came to the door, and guided me inside. “I saw what happened, he shouldn’t have slapped you.”

My hand went to where he had hit me. “Yes he should have,” I said.

I walked into my office and called up a search engine, but for what? I typed in Babe Ruth and found a wikipedia reference.

“Babe Ruth was a pitcher outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who was suspended for life by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis after allegedly throwing games during the 1921 season. Ruth long claimed that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee framed him but could not prove the charges. With the suspension of Ruth a year after the Black Sox Scandal baseball faded as the National pastime and Major Leagues folded during the second World War.”

I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were filled with tears. I typed in Harry Frazee.

“Owner of the Boston Red Sox who is long thought to have framed pitcher outfielder Babe Ruth for gambling. The suspension led to the collapse of the major leagues. Much suspicion has fallen on a mysterious man who Frazee met on Christmas Day in 1920 and gave the owner a purple bag with $150,000 worth of gold in it. The man was never seen again but is known as ‘the man who killed baseball.’”

I felt Greta’s hands on my trembling chest as tears fell from my eyes. “I’m sorry sweaty,” she said kissing my head. “Maybe if my father had lived long enough you two could have built that time machine, gone back and stopped whoever that awful man was, then your father could have his baseball back and would never have turned to alcohol.”

She stood running her hands up my body. “But I think my father was right, god knows what you could wrought if you went back in time.”

She shut out the light as she left the room leaving the man who killed baseball weeping softly as his computer.

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