“The best I ever saw? I hate these kinds of questions.”
“How about top five?”
“That would be easier. But I don’t like having to make lists. I’m not that guy. I know that guy but he’s not me.”
“I know. I’m the list guy, the stat guy, the nerd guy, and the guy’s guy. So, before we get started, tell me, what’s the best baseball play or game that you’ve seen in person?”
“I’m not sure this is where you were headed, but the most memorable game was the doubleheader I saw when I was on acid.”
“You’re right, dude. That wasn’t where I was headed. I was thinking a no-hitter, a grand slam, a playoff game, that sort of thing.”
“I got to tell you, by the end of that doubleheader, as fucked up as we were, we were the soberest people there. A doubleheader, summer, lots of really, really drunk people … it was memorable.”
I was standing behind these guys in the registration line, getting a contact high off of them. I couldn’t smell any dope but they still reeked of it. Maybe it was the Hawaiian shirts, surfer shorts, and flip-flops. Here I was thinking this was going to be a more strait-laced, middle-America kind of crowd and already things were shifting.
Even though these guys looked like stoners, they were in pretty good shape—maybe mid-twenties and probably played baseball in high school or college.
I’m guessing the latter because we were all about to register for the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Fantasy Baseball Camp in Vero Beach, Florida. It was October 1984. The humidity was giving us a break, and we were going to shag balls, play some games, meet some all-stars, learn some pointers, and become better team players.
At least that was part of the job description I’d been given. I wasn’t here because I was a baseball fan or former player trying to relive my glory years. I was here because my client was starting a company and he wanted to do some team building. The Dodgers were going to help him do it. In case they faltered, I’d be there to make it all better.
It might have been easier without the murders.
Sunday, October 7, 1984
I’ve got a good friend who read one of my earlier books and told me it took too long to get into the action, that I should have killed someone off earlier. Maybe I should have—after all, I’m a guy who prefers to skip the foreplay. In deference to his wishes, let me say in this first paragraph that the dead body I stumbled on in the outfield surprised me. We were supposed to be playing on baseball fields, not killing fields.
There’s something else I need to come clean about: I didn’t stumble on a body in the outfield. It happened someplace else and I didn’t exactly stumble. I just said that and put the picture on the cover to make my friend happy.
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me give you a little of the backstory; then we can get on to the murders and mayhem.
You know how trends go. Something starts small, momentum builds, and soon you have bandwagoners jumping on board. In 1980, Doubleday Publishing bought the NY Mets. It was the first time a publishing company had branched out and bought a professional sports team. But it wasn’t the last. In the four years that followed, other companies followed suit and now it seemed the business world was looking at the sports industry as the next big thing.
Danny London had just been bankrolled to start a publishing company. He’d contacted me when he signed the deal because I’d written some mystery books and was also a therapist. Foul Ball Publishing was going to specialize in sports books and mysteries with a sports connection. He’d hired a few staff members and, to build cohesiveness, decided to take them to the Dodgers Adult Fantasy Baseball Camp. He brought me along just in case.
I suppose there are all manner of companies and consultants who would happily bill you for helping to build your team morale, cohesiveness, efficiency, and effectiveness. Heck, I’d be happy to do that. But Danny London was first and foremost a Dodgers fan. If you or I were to tell him we’d been surprised by something, he’d say life had thrown us a curveball. He looked at life through a baseball lens and wanted to take his new staff to Dodgertown to make them better teammates—the Dodgers’ Way.
Danny had grown up in Brooklyn and his family were Brooklyn Dodgers fans. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, he’d listen to games being reenacted on the radio. As a kid, he’d wanted to be in the majors and hit the grand slam to win the World Series. When he reached ninth grade and realized how he measured up against the competition, he reluctantly let go of that dream. Now he was starting his own company, and he wanted to give his employees an experience they’d never forget. He’d build their loyalty to Foul Ball as the Dodgers had built his loyalty, through the fundamentals—hard work, team play, and comradery.
“I’m not expecting trouble,” Danny told me. “It’s more like there are a lot of intangibles.”
That’s how he explained his wanting me to attend the week-long camp at Dodgertown. Not all his new employees played or even liked the game, but he’d heard that Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley had built their championship organizations from the ground up and that’s what he wanted to do.
If you’ve read any of my other books, you know I’m an out-of-the-office therapist as well as a professor. When I first envisioned seeing clients out of the office, I thought it would involve some family meetings, maybe facilitating a work dispute. I didn’t know I’d be on planes, helping a client get over their fear of flying, going to a rock festival to support a musician, or attending a conference of mystery writers.
Danny read A Lesson in Therapy and Murder and called me: Would I ever write a mystery revolving around a sport? I hadn’t considered it but told him my writing came out of the experiences I’d had. If I were at a sporting activity and something untoward happened, that might very well end up in a book.
That’s when he invited me to Vero Beach. I asked him if he was anticipating a murder, and he laughed and said, “You never know.” It was eerie, almost like a foreshadowing. No way anyone could forecast that unless they were the killer. He didn’t sound like a killer, but I’d only been on the phone with him for fifteen minutes so it wasn’t like I had that much data at my disposal.
I told him I wanted to meet with him before deciding. He agreed but said there wasn’t time. He lives in New York. I live in Los Angeles. The camp started in three days.
I asked why the late notice. He told me he’d just gotten the go-ahead from the money people and wanted to seize the moment.
I was intrigued.
He told me he’d want me to do all the activities with the rest of the team.
I hadn’t thrown a baseball since PE in high school, but if I could overcome my reluctance to show off my lesser skills, I might have a good time. Maybe there was even a book in it. Problem was, school was in session. I didn’t like missing a week of class but I rationalized it this way—I was modeling taking care of yourself.
I was also modeling not fully honoring your commitments.
There was a solution of sorts. A former student who’d gotten her doctorate wanted a chance to teach. I let her sub for me and hoped the students wouldn’t like her more than me, which they might. In that case, I wasn’t sure I’d want her to sub for me again.
Still, I’m a therapist who encourages people to do what they want to do and deal with the consequences. The only downsides to the camp seemed to be sore muscles, sunburn, and hangovers. So I agreed to go.
Danny had interviewed and hired everyone in New York. Suzie, his assistant, had done all the paperwork. The whole staff had met only once—on their first day. Danny gave a welcome speech and had everyone introduce themselves. That was it. Everyone set up their offices and started to settle in. Then they all went home and readied themselves for a 4 p.m. meet at Dodgertown in two days.
There was one other thing I needed to bring in addition to the obvious. A nickname. Everyone had to, and we’d use them throughout the week. They’d even go on our uniforms. I thought that was pretty cool. Danny was going with Boss but I was free to choose any other name I wanted.
I’ve learned to consider my welfare so I put in some conditions. For starters, I wanted my own room. My issue with shared rooms goes back to my early grad-school teaching years. I’d been sent to a conference and had to bunk with someone. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find my roommate standing over me, yelling he was going to kill me. I managed to wake him from his nightmare but have since avoided bunking with unknown others.
There was one other accommodation: I wanted to play center field.
And there was my fee, of course.
He agreed to all three requirements.
Time to play ball.