Located along the gulf coast at the nether end of Morthomme Parish, Craw City has long been a bastion of independent baseball. Rice magnate B.B. Cruller originally founded the club in 1936. A true fan of the national pastime, Cruller was equally fond of fried trotters and wanted to name the club that. For obvious reasons, locals refused to allow their sons to be called Trotters, but then strangely accepted the Gizzard moniker. Perhaps they were desperate just to have a hometown team. If residents of Craw City had possessed a crystal ball, however, they might not have been so optimistic. Soon after the foundations were laid, Cruller died a raving lunatic and relatives discovered he’d willed the entirety of his fortune to ‘dear Old Hickory.’ Each of B.B.’s three sons claimed they were in fact the hickory in question, but the butler soon revealed that was actually the boss’s pet name for a tree stump in the back yard. It took over twenty years to unsort the tangled will, and all three sons died broke and degenerate in New Orleans before anyone ever touched a dime.
Cruller’s blueprints for the diamond were equally bizarre. Placed as it was on a desolate sand spit and attainable only by way of pelican be-crapped piers, Gizzard Park is like none other in baseball. Bringing a whole new concept to tailgating, the local shrimp fleet docks in the harbor just beyond the right field fence. Oil refineries up the coast belch fumes and fire less than half a mile away, and twice in the last decade games have been cancelled due to oil slicks. Craw City itself has almost been wiped from the earth numerous times due to the heavy concentration of storms that come through, raising hell as well as high water every hurricane season. Perhaps the rain is a relief though; last year there were 279 days where temperatures reached 90 degrees or above.
To top it off, Craw City lost its major league affiliation a long time ago. Once a rookie league team for the then-Los Angeles Angels, Craw City was dropped by the big club in the mid-1960’s and has been on its own ever since. Minus professional coaches, equipment, or any other kind of financial support or exposure, players for Craw City must pray that scouts for other organizations notice them. Since being abandoned by the Angels, not one single Gizzard has managed to ascend to ‘The Show.’ It’s perhaps the most hopeless situation in all of minor league baseball, but to a man the Gizzards refuse to give up their big league dreams.
I first became aware of the Gizzards last year. Shopping online for caps from various strange, sometimes outright bizarre minor league clubs- the Las Vegas Area 51’s, the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Lansing Lugnuts- I came across Craw City’s logo of a drowned rat. Staring disbelief at both the name of the team and its ghastly, brown-on-brown rat cap, I decided to find out more. The team didn’t have a website of its own, but finding a schedule of the entire rookie level Bayou League, I did manage to come up with a phone number. It was temporarily out of service.
I forgot all about the Gizzards until a few months later. While visiting family in Baton Rouge, I remembered that awful drowned rat and asked my uncle about the team. He shook his head and chuckled. ‘Oh yeah,’ he smiled, ‘the Gizzards are still around. Like death and taxes.’ I asked if we could go down and see a game. He said he’d had enough of Craw City for a lifetime but agreed to let me borrow a car and gave me directions.
After getting lost a couple of times going through Morthomme Parish, then again in the crisscrossed desolation of the Craw City rail yards, I finally found the park. I could hardly believe my eyes as I squinted into the red sunset. Low tide had revealed a Buick plus a washing machine sunken in the reeking, polluted harbor. A lot of mostly barefoot children seemed to be standing around the pier walkway. Some of them were hawking game programs. After I dropped a buck for one, I noticed the program was from 1974. An ad for Pet Rocks graced the back cover, while Gerald Ford had written a note wishing the Bayou League a successful year.
I made my way into the park and began to have a look around. Only one concession stand was actually open, and all they sold were small, crushed baggies of potato chips. If fans wanted soda or beer, it appeared they had to bring their own. I could see other fans in the grandstand tossing breadcrumbs to the gulls shrieking overhead. Craning my head to see if there was an actual press box, I spied a door with a largish sign that read, ‘Jimmy Saltine- Concessions, Payroll.’ I thought I’d give it a try and headed up the rickety stairs.
Just outside the office door, I noticed another smaller sign that said cut bait was also available from Mr. Saltine. ‘What the ’ I thought, then figured the hell with it and knocked. Invited in by a tentative hullo, I entered the office.
Mr. Saltinebrown-eyed with ginger hair and a dazed expressionrose, shook my hand, and asked how he could be of assistance. I liked him immediately and told him I wrote for an Internet magazine from up north and was interested in the Gizzards. ‘The Interweb, huh,’ he smiled as he ran a hand through his thinning red hair. ‘This team is just hoping to get their cleaning bills paid, never mind the Interweb. But c’mon, we sure could use some press. These boys play their butts off, maybe one of ‘em will catch a break. You wanna meet the team?’ In happy disbelief, I said sure.
As we descended the tunnels towards the clubhouse, Jimmy (‘Jimmy, please. Only my old man was Mr. Saltine, and he was a right bastard so I kinda prefer Jimmy if you know what I mean’) told me the history of the team, the way the Angels had abandoned them, plus how the absentee owner Mr. Robbe-Grillet was usually too busy to pay much attention to the team or its payroll.
‘Robbe-Grillet,’ I said, astonished.
‘Yessir, Buford Robbe-Grillet. Family has been in Morthomme Parish since the days of Lafitte. And he sure is a fan of dog racing. This year went all the way to Thailand just to watch them mutts run.’
‘Must be hard to run a team from Thailand,’ I said.
‘I reckon so. Must be why no one has been paid yet this season. Western Union line might not be working or something,’ Jimmy grinned wryfully.
We found the Gizzards rallied around the water cooler. Shirts were hung to dry on clotheslines near a grimy yellow window. All around me, I heard the thwap of cockroaches being killed with rolled nudie mags. With the heat and all, the locker room was like an infernal college dorm. Jimmy spoke up.
‘Boys, this here’s Mr. Toby. He’s an Interweb reporter from up north, and he’s here to make us all famous, like them American idols, so be sure to give him a good quote ‘
A scrawny shortstop applauded like mad and yelled, ‘Atta boy!’ The rest didn’t bother to raise their heads. A flat-nosed man with a graying mustache approached and shook my hand. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m the manager, Coach Sampson. Welcome to Craw City.’
‘It’s good to be here,’ I stammered, not knowing what else to say. Then looking at the coach closer, I realized who he was.
Mitch ‘Slapper’ Sampson was a backup catcher for the Chicago Cubs and one of the true goats of the infamous 1969 Cubbie collapse. The Cubs of ‘69 had a 10-game lead in their division with a little more than 6 weeks left in the season when they inexplicably fell to pieces. Losing at a furious pace while the New York Mets made a charge for first, somehow the Cubbies finished well behind the ‘Miracle Mets’ in one of the worst collapses in baseball history. And perhaps the lowest point in the Cubbie year occurred when Slapper, playing in only his 13th game of the season, dropped the ball at home and let the winning run score despite the runner having fallen down with two torn Achilles tendons.
My mother is from Chicago, and though she is a very nice woman, I’ve heard her refer to Slapper in terms that would make sailors cringe in shame.
‘Wow,’ I said, ‘it’s a real pleasure meeting you. And hey, that play could have happened to anyone.’ Then I made a terrible gaffe. It was like my subconscious took over as I murmured despite myself, ‘And hey,that play could have happened to anyone. I mean ’
Ever a gentleman, though, Slapper waved me off. ‘I appreciate the kind words. What bothers me is that the runner was actually trying to crawl to the bench. I got confused and wondered if the poor feller needed medical attention. That’s how come I dropped the ball.’ Then, picking up, he hollered, ‘Hey, we got a ball game to play!’ The squad groaned and headed up the tunnel. Slapper invited me to join the Gizzards on the bench.
The temperature in the dugout had to be above 120 degrees. Even the flies were panting. Looking up, I saw the roof was actually made of corrugated tin. The Gizzards took the field to cheers mixed with a fair share of catcalls and began to warm-up.
Across the diamond, I could see the opposing team, the Simpletown (TX) Roundups, kind of laughing and flexing their muscles. One Roundup was ordering teammates to smack him in the head, roaring as he got himself psyched up. Coach sighed.
‘That’s their catcher, Moose Lockjaw. Rumor has it he’s got an entire garbage can of steroid pills in the Roundup locker room. Plus another filled with speed. Last time we faced the Moose, he hit a ball so hard it killed a pelican in the bay. I shit you not.’
‘Oh. What other prospects do you have?’
‘Well, there’s Knuckles over there warming up.’
‘Nothing like the old knuckleball, eh?’
‘Knuckleball hell. He got his hand caught in some farm machinery last summer and lost a few of his fingertips. But he’s better than Thumbs over there at third.’
I was tempted to ask if he had also lost digits, but tried instead, ‘All thumbs in the field, huh?’
‘Nope. We call him that cause whenever he’s up in a big spot, guaranteed both thumbs are up his butt. Now Pinky out in centerfield, that’s a kid that’s all thumbs.’
I just stared at Slapper, who began to shake he was laughing so hard. ‘Lookit,’ he said, wiping a tear from his eye, ‘I don’t mean to pull your leg. These kids ain’t got much but at least they’re out there. And you know, most of ‘em were pretty fair high school players. Stephens can hit like hell, not his fault his back just keeps getting worse and worse. Not his fault he can’t afford the surgery either. They may not be the hottest prospects in the world, and I gotta say those ugly-ass uniforms don’t help their image much, but these kids would paste most any beer-league team. It’s just a matter of perspective.’
I’ll be spare with the game’s details. Knuckles didn’t have it that day, though every once in a while he’d drop a filthy curve on someone for a strike out. The missing fingertips only seemed to help his hook, and whenever he rung someone up the shortstop Needles would scream ‘Atta boy’ for a few minutes. Still, his fastball wasn’t much and the Roundups launched some moonshots into the bay. By the 5th inning, the score was 12-1. The Gizzards lone run came after Stephens sent one yard. Slapper was right: he could hit like hell. Though the Gizzards broke through for another couple of runs in the last inning on yet another homer by Stephens, in the end it was Simpletown’s day. The final was 16-3, Like everyone else on the team, I shuffled into the locker room in a zombified daze.
‘We’ll git em tomorrow, boys!’ yelled Needles as he stripped his filthy socks, but no one wanted to hear it, especially Knuckles. The losing pitcher grabbed the soggy socks, slapped Needles across the face, then returned to his locker smiling for the first and only time that afternoon.
At that point it just felt too depressing. I split from the clubhouse and headed back to the parking lot. Kicking up dust, I made it to a drive-thru liquor stand in less than ten minutes, where I picked up a case of Lone Star and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Then I headed back toward the harbor. Hopping from scrap to scrap, I carried the booze out to the wrecked Buick, drank heavily and watched the sun go down. The light was kind of pretty, reflecting off the passing oil sludge and all.
After a while I heard splashing behind me. Turning, I saw it was Jimmy and Slapper picking their way out to my perch in the harbor. We sat together and passed the bottle around. Shrimpers tooted their boat horns and the captains brandished their own drinks as they chugged passed, enveloping us in diesel fumes. Finally daring to speak the obvious, I told my companions, ‘Gentlemen, I am sorry but that has got to be the worst team I have ever seen. It just broke my heart for a moment, those kids trying so hard and all.’
‘Aw, don’t get too down about us,’ slurred Slapper. ‘Like I said, it’s matter of perspective. Think of it this way: in all your lifetime, you’ll probably never see anything quite like the Gizzards.’
‘That’s right, Mister Toby’ said Jimmy. ‘And besides, you get used to it after a while. Like death and taxes.’