This story is by John “Mac” MacIlroy and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I met him at the Two Tap, a tavern in Bellows Corner about a two-hour drive from Boston. He was tending bar, and I had spent the morning with his boss, the owner of the place, crunching numbers at our bank’s branch next to the old train depot in town.
My job is a sad one, taking me to the forgotten factory towns in Massachusetts, talking about debt ratios and cash flow and the treacheries of the New Economy. I rarely get to deliver good news, and I didn’t that day: the Two Tap was running out of cash, and the Boston Bank & Trust was running out of patience.
I needed a beer, and the Two Tap could use the business.
As I walked into the place, I noticed hundreds of framed photos on the walls, mostly baseball players in striped knee britches and caps and out-sized mustaches, tough guys in baggy shirts with “Bellows Corner” stitched across the chest in a graceful old style, like you might see on an old circus wagon.
“You like baseball?”
I turned to the bartender. “You bet. Walked-on at Amherst, played first base.” I sat down on a high-backed stool, and ordered a Narragansett.
“Bump O’Rourke,” he said, sticking out his paw which was the size of a waffle griddle. Fit, about my age, South Boston accent.
“Pete. Pete MacGregor.”
We shook hands. He was wearing a sun-faded scarlet baseball cap, worn thin on the brim like an old tire. I pointed to the walls.
“You ever play?”
Bump smiled. “Right Field, mostly. Suited-up when the Edgar Ball-Bearing Company sponsored the team, part of the original Federation.”
“Teams from the old factory towns, playing for the love of the game.” He winked. “Well, maybe a little for the ladies, too, coming over from Fall River.”
Bump was clearly enjoying this. “Weak fielder, strong at the plate. Coached third after the knees went, been manager ever since the Two Tap started sponsoring the team.”
“So you’re still . . .”
“In the game?” He smiled. “Oh, yeah. We all are.” He pointed to a few guys around a table, more playing pool in the back room. “Let me show you something.”
Bump pulled a yellowed piece of paper from his wallet, and carefully unfolded it. “Here’s the line-up for Saturday. Probably make a couple changes.” He laughed. “Some of the boys won’t be happy.” He put the paper back in his wallet, and pointed to the far wall. “Go take a look.”
I walked over to a large photo. Bump was leaning on a bat, the shot nicely staged to catch the Edgar Ball-Bearing Company ad on the outfield fence. A caption in large letters read JACKSON “BUMP” O’ROURKE, and under his name 1919 Rookie of the Year.
I’m a numbers guy, and something was off here.
“Bump, that caption . . .”
He seemed ready for this. “Sure, I was just a kid, right out of college. Worcester Tech.”
“But . . .”
Bump smiled. “That’s the magic of baseball, the miracle.” He nodded to the clock above the bar, and shrugged. “So many other things tied to the clock, ticking down to . . . what?” He smiled. “But not baseball. Writer named Angell said something like this: ‘as long as a team can rally, as long as it can keep hitting, then a game can go on forever.’ That’s the real promise of the game, you know.”
Bump took a damp rag to a spot on the old mahogany bar. “Forever, Pete.”
“Bump, I’m trying to . . .”
He closed his eyes, but just for a moment. “Let it in, Pete. We’ve found a way to stop that clock, beat time, stay in the game.” He paused. “And it’s ours.”
Bump leaned in. “It all started in the summer of 1937, Bellows Corner playing away at Woonsocket, team called The Zephyrs. Not a cloud in the sky, game scoreless into the top of the ninth, our three big guys up — Kowalski, Marcella, Allen. He smiled, slipping into another time. “Kowalski catches a slider on the outside corner, sending a sizzler past second. Marcella then powders a drive into deep right, driving Kowalski to third. Allen parks his first pitch into the bleachers, dead center.”
Bump pulled at a loose thread on his hat.
“Here’s the thing, Pete. We just kept hitting. I singled. Muldoon, our lead-off guy, blooped a cheap single. Baker doubled on a full count. Fitzsimmons creamed one into left. We hit sliders, change-ups, everything they threw our way. We ran the order; then we ran it again. We owned the top of the ninth — the Zephyrs running out of pitchers, the day running out of light.”
He smiled again. “Ump wanted to call it, but Woonsocket demanded the game resume the next Saturday.”
I’ve met crazier people across my polished desk in downtown Boston. Besides, I was enjoying this, so I played along. “They could do that?”
“Why not? We resumed the game next week, back in Bellows Corner. But Woonsocket never got to their bottom of the ninth. Not that Saturday. Not the next Saturday. Not any Saturday since.”
He looked me hard in the eye. “It’s been almost eighty years now, The Rally. That’s what we call it.” He pointed to the men around the tavern. “At least me and the boys.” He moved a couple coasters along the bar. “It’s the magic the baseball writers all talk about, the promise we all hope to find. And it’s about all we’ve got left, Pete. Baseball.” He looked around. “And this place.”
Bump paused. “Come to the game Saturday. You’ll see for yourself.”
I didn’t really have anything going on, but I told him I couldn’t make it. Maybe I didn’t want to mess with a guy having a little fun with the city-boy, or even a little nuts. Or perhaps I just felt guilty about the hammer I was about to drop on the Two Tap, and needed to think there is still a little magic in the world, and I didn’t want to find out that it’s always nothing more than a man behind the curtain.
I said goodbye, and headed home to Boston.
* * *
Over the next few weeks I thought often about how good a cold beer can taste at the end of a bad day at work, not just for city-boy bankers traveling through, but for the folks in the forgotten towns, where time was running out.
But mostly I thought about what smart college boys who are good with numbers sometimes have to do.
Cash flow is not magic, you know, and a job is just a job.
* * *
A few days later, I drove back to the Two Tap.
The place was empty, except for the bartender, a kid really, a baseball cap loose on his head, the brim flat like all the kids wear today.
“Bump O’Rourke around?” I asked.
The bartender shook his head. “Jimmy O’Rourke?”
“No. Bump O’Rourke. Served me a couple beers maybe a month ago. Guy could talk baseball, spin a good yarn too, tall tale. Wheeled me right in.” I pointed to Bump’s picture on the wall.
The kid looked puzzled. “That O’Rourke?”
“But he’s been dead for almost eighty years now, mister.”
“He died in the big fire at the old Edgar Ball-Bearing factory, back in ’37. Terrible day, that fire. Lost most of the guys on the second shift — Bump’s shift, it was. Many of the guys up there . . .” The kid paused, pointing. “They’re all buried together in the town cemetery, just past the ball field. Groundskeepers take good care of those graves, that’s what I hear.”
As I turned to leave, the kid stopped me. “Say, you the guy from Boston Bank & Trust?”
He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers, and smiled. “Thanks.”
* * *
The cemetery was mostly overgrown. But among the weathered and tilted tombstones I found a row of simple granite slabs, headstones tall and straight — Muldoon. Kowalski. Marcella. Allen . . . O’Rourke. To the left was a stacked-stone monument, waist-high, a small freshly-polished brass plaque carefully centered. I leaned down to take a closer look:
Lost in the Great Fire
June 23, 1937
As I brushed a little dirt off Bump’s headstone, I noticed a carefully folded piece of yellowed paper. It was tucked under a corner of the plaque, and I almost missed it.
I pulled it out, and unfolded it.
It was a line-up for next Saturday’s game . . . Muldoon again leading off, followed by Kowalski, Marcella, and Allen. Scribbled along the side was a note:
How about this Saturday, Pete? Bump
It still doesn’t make sense. But that’s never the point of magic, is it?