- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The minute the dame claimed she owned the Kirk Gibson home run ball, I knew she was lying. Either that, or she was as delusional as Cubs fans convinced next season would be their year.
It was almost game time on an unseasonably warm October evening, with a full moon already hanging over Los Angeles as big and obvious as Mr. Met's head. The office air conditioning was broken again, so I was sweating like Bartolo Colon during a summer doubleheader in St. Louis. And then she walked in. My armpits instantly felt as if I had used an entire $11.75 microbrew as my deodorant.
She was a lithe brunette in her early 20s with legs that could stop Derek Jeter in his tracks. She wore a tight black cocktail dress so short that the hemline was practically out of the strike zone. A black Michael Kors handbag dangled delicately in the crook of her arm like that photo-shopped pic of Alex Rodriguez slapping at Bronson Arroyo. Her lips were as vibrant as the red number on a Dodgers jersey.
She was so seductive, A-Rod would not have passed her a baseball during a game; he simply would have risen out of the dugout, taken a seat next to her and proposed without so much as a prenup. Roy Hobbs would have thrown the final game of the season for her without the Judge even offering him a dime.
"Mr. Marlowe? Philip Marlowe?" she asked, extending her hand toward mine. Those long, crimson-polished nails could never throw a knuckleball, though I imagined them rustling through my hair. "My name is Holly Wood. I know. It sounds ridiculous. My mother was right -- I should never have changed it when I got married. Of course, I never should have gotten married, either. But I'll change back to my maiden name when the divorce is finalized."
She sat down in the chair in front of my desk, crossing her right leg over the left. Her dress rose up another two inches. I had a front row view of her silk stockings climbing up those lean, muscled legs like the highest stirrup socks in history.
"Mr. Marlowe, do you remember the Kirk Gibson home run?"
What a dumb question. What baseball fan doesn't know about the home run that gave the Dodgers the victory in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? Gibson, nursing a bad hamstring and a bad knee, limped to the plate to pinch hit against Oakland's dominating closer, Dennis Eckersley. Eck had led the league with 45 saves, but he had also blown eight, and Dodgers scouts told Gibby to be on the lookout for his backdoor slider. The pitch would break over the plate and into the strike zone. All you had to do was wait for it. And then somehow get the barrel of your bat on it.
Gibson did, slamming the ball on a parabola into the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer to give the Dodgers a 5-4 win. He circled the bases, pumping his fist as if he were pulling the power cord on a lawnmower. His teammates swarmed him when he crossed home plate and the fans beat themselves with joyous backslaps and high-fives. Red taillights blazed on the crowded road leading from Dodger Stadium as drivers, listening on the radio, hit their brakes and cursed themselves for leaving the game early.
"Of course I know about that home run," I said. "I just wish I knew where the baseball was. I could pay off my creditors and buy an island somewhere where I could retire. I might even be able to afford a season ticket and a beer each game."
"I know where that baseball is. My ex has it," she said coldly. "But that ball is mine, and I want it back. And you're going to get it for me."
Her story was about as credible as an owner claiming his team was losing money.
No one knew where that home run ball was. It was a different era back then. In 1988, Todd McFarlane was a frustrated former college baseball player who had just started illustrating Spider-Man comic books. It would be another decade before he piled up enough money to pay $3 million for Mark McGwire's record home run ball. Besides, no one thought about selling historic home run balls in 1988. So no one cared what happened to the Gibson ball. Not even the player who hit it.
"I know it hit somebody in the leg," Gibson told an ESPN reporter this spring. "A lady sent me a picture and her leg was all bruised. But nobody knows where the ball is at."
So the dame was lying. But I listened to what she had to say anyway. I had bills to pay, and she looked like a substantial paycheck.
"The Gibson ball belonged to my mother," Wood explained. "She is a crazy big baseball fan. Absolutely loves the game. She's downright religious about it. Me, I couldn't care less about baseball. The games last way too long, especially in the postseason with the extra commercials. Anyway, some old friend of Mom's gave that baseball to her and then she gave it to me when I got married. Mom told me, 'This is one of the most famous home run balls in baseball history, and I want you to have this because it was hit in the fall of 1988, the same year you were conceived. And I hope you provide me with an infield of grandchildren.'
"Frankly, I would have appreciated a set of china instead, but my ex was wild about the baseball. First thing he said when we left the wedding reception was, 'Do you know how much that ball is worth?' I should have known then our marriage was doomed."
I knew the rest of the story before she told me. Wood and her husband broke up. Her husband swiped the ball and refused to admit he had it, let alone give it back to her. It was my job to convince him otherwise.
"I'll make it worth your while to return that ball to me, Mr. Marlowe," Wood said. "I'll give you a finder's fee equal to 20 percent of its value."
Twenty percent of its value? I could only hope Todd MacFarlane was feeling flush.
Maybe her ex-husband had the Gibson ball after all. Or at least he had it at some point. Not that I got a chance to question him on the subject.
Holly said her ex would be at their old one-bedroom condo because all he ever did was sit around watching games and writing a baseball blog he called HemorragingDodgerBlue.com. There was no answer when I rang the doorbell, though. I let myself in, being careful to not leave fingerprints. And when I got inside, I could see why he hadn't answered.
He was sprawled across the living room carpet as if he had walked directly into a Clayton Kershaw fastball. I checked his pulse. He was still alive, but just barely. Sort of like the Marlins' offense. I grabbed his cellphone, dialed 911 and then took a quick look around the condo.
Whoever clobbered the poor kid had also ransacked the place. Drawers were ajar, cushions were ripped open and tossed aside. Replica jerseys and baseball cards were scattered on his bedroom floor like sunflower seed shells in a postgame dugout. And for some reason, everything was wet.
It didn't take a genius to figure out what they'd been looking for. A quick glance at the dope's latest blog entries explained it all. The moron had bragged that he had the Gibson home run ball and was taking bids on it. As if that wasn't dumb enough, he also wrote that the win is a completely meaningless stat and should be eliminated. I hate that attitude. Guys like that would say Kershaw wouldn't deserve the Cy Young if he were a 20-game winner.
I was wondering whether the attacker had found the ball when I noticed a slip of paper next to the kid. I picked it up. There was an address on it. I stuffed the paper into my pocket as wailing sirens signaled the approach of an ambulance and the police. I took that as my cue to leave and ducked out the back door.
I didn't get very far. I caught a brief glance of a guy in thick glasses and a Chief Wahoo baseball cap, but that was the last thing I saw before he clocked me harder than if I was John Roseboro meeting Juan Marichal in a dark alley.
I regained consciousness in the passenger seat of an old, battered Porsche 911. I don't know what was giving me a bigger headache -- the blow to the head or the pounding sound system that was louder than a Pittsburgh crowd getting on Johnny Cueto.
I stared over at the driver. He looked vaguely familiar -- and kind of pleasantly dim -- but I couldn't place him. "Why did you clobber me?" I asked.
"I didn't. Some other guy smacked you," he said. "I was watching behind a bush. He hit you then grabbed something out of your pocket. When I heard the sirens, I decided to get you out of there before the police got nosy."
I reached into my pocket. He was right. The slip of paper was as gone as Oakland's postseason hopes in a clinch game.
"What was it?" the driver asked.
"Nothing important. Just a ticket to the Dodgers-Cardinals game."
"Yeah, right. You have a ticket to tonight's NLCS game and you're sneaking around someone's condo? Seriously? I think it was something else. Like the address where the Kirk Gibson ball is."
The guy wasn't as dense as he looked. Maybe, like the Pirates front office, he actually had a clue. "I don't know what you mean," I said.
"Don't play dumb. You're the shamus my daughter hired to track down the Gibson ball. I followed you from your office."
"Funny, Holly never mentioned you."
"I'm not surprised. She doesn't believe I'm her father. She thinks some older, better-looking guy is." He paused. "Her mother slept around a lot. She was kind of the Anna Benson of her day."
"So you're saying the ball is yours?"
He pulled the car into the parking lot of an empty In-N-Out joint. There was no one else there, not even Tim Lincecum.
"The ball isn't entirely mine, but I could use the money it would bring. I'm afraid my bonus money is finally gone," he said, giving me a look. "Yeah, that's right. I pitched for a while. Had a cup of coffee in the majors. Then my arm blew out. Torn rotator cuff. Torn labrum. And Tommy Lee surgery."
"You mean Tommy John surgery."
"Whatever. Didn't work. The organization abused my arm in the minors. I threw 226 pitches in my pro debut. Can you imagine that nowadays?"
"Dusty Baker must have been your manager."
"I wish. But how's about we quit with the small talk and get down to business? What was the address on the slip of paper?"
Like a team down three games to none in the postseason, I didn't have anything to lose. And I had memorized the address the way I memorize everything -- by translating it to a player's jersey number. And that address was remarkably easy.
"Don Drysdale Orel Hershiser North Yasiel Puig," I said. "5355 N. 66th."
When we neared the address, Holly's father -- if that's who he really was -- killed the engine and glided us to the curb as silently as a bullpen cart. Rather than knock on the door, we decided to go around to the back and case the joint. Good thing we did, because just as we were getting out of the car, the dirtbag who blindsided me was slipping out the window and heading for the alley. As bright as the moonlight was, I could see the offensive Chief Wahoo logo on his cap and a baseball in his hand. The Gibson home run ball.
I was about to give chase when the most godforsaken, bloodthirsty howl pierced the night. I couldn't have been more frightened if Albert Belle was charging me on the mound. But it was even more menacing. It was a vicious, overgrown mastiff so enormous it looked like it ate both Schottzie I and Schottzie II for breakfast. It was a beast.
The Beast had been chained to a thick stake but was so strong he pulled it out the ground. And he was in hot pursuit of Chief Wahoo.
Chief Wahoo tried to climb over the back fence, but he wasn't quick enough. The Beast leaped and clamped his teeth on the back of the fugitive's right calf, pulling him back into the yard like security guards grabbing a fan streaking across the outfield. The hellhound was chomping on the guy's leg like Panda Sandoval attacking a postgame spread.
The guy was howling in pain, pleading for mercy. I almost felt sorry enough to pull the dog off him when a voice boomed from the back porch.
"Smalls! Stop! Let him go!''
Hearing this, Chief Wahoo moaned, "You're killing me, Smalls." The Beast let go of his leg, raised his head and trotted obediently to the back porch with the Gibson ball in his mouth.
The Beast's owner patted him on the head, saying, "Good dog, Smalls. Good dog.'' The owner looked us over. He stared at Chief Wahoo, then at Holly's dad, then at me … and then back at Holly's dad.
"Nuke?" the guy said. "What the hell are you doing here?"
While Chief Wahoo bandaged his leg, I sat at the kitchen table putting together the puzzle. It was as complicated as trying to compute a guy's WAR, but it finally made sense.
Back in 1988, Crash and Nuke had been minor league teammates with the Durham Bulls and rivals for the same woman, some broad named Annie Savoy. When Annie gave birth to Holly the following spring, their friendship unraveled over who exactly was the father. They hadn't spoken to each other in almost a quarter-century, not even at Holly's wedding.
Chief Wahoo's name was Rick Vaughn, the former Cleveland closer known as the Wild Thing. Crash had taken him deep when the two played in the Texas League. Vaughn had a couple decent years with Cleveland, but like most closers not named Mariano, he fizzled out.
He'd had a major meltdown in recent years and was given to violent outbursts, such as when he coldcocked me and Holly's ex. Obsessed with the collectibles market, he also spent his savings on baseball memorabilia. He even bought out the entire outfield section at Anaheim Stadium one night hoping to catch a home run ball, to no avail.
He also had recently been kicked out of the home he shared with his brother and teenage son. Homeless, the Wild Thing was hoping the Gibson ball would cover his losses and give him a new start on life. He kept staring at the ball like it was the Honus Wagner tobacco card as it rested in a pool of The Beast's slobber on the kitchen table.
Nuke wasn't faring so well, either. He had been living in his Porsche 911 for the past six months.
Crash was doing a little better. A least he had a place to live. He bought the house from a famously reclusive African-American writer who wore suspenders all the time. His career had tanked after baseball, too. He said he was briefly in the military, and then a bodyguard for a while. He worked as a postman, too, and spent some time at sea. He even farmed for a while until the bank foreclosed on his cornfield.
"None of it worked out," he said, shaking his head. "If only I had been able to get that managerial gig."
"Yeah, whatever happened with that?" Nuke said. "I thought you were going to manage at Visalia."
"So did I," Crash said. "After our season ended in Durham, I went to Game 1 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium to talk to the Twins farm director, Jim Rantz, about that job. In fact, I was sitting down the third base line talking to him when Gibson hit his home run. Rantz said he thought I would make a good manager but that some guy named Scott Ullger was doing great and -- "
"Wait a minute," Vaughn interrupted. "Did you say the third base line? If you were sitting down the third base line, how were you able to catch the Gibson ball? He hit it to right field."
Crash seemed so genuinely puzzled I knew he was telling the truth. "The Gibson ball?" he said. "I didn't catch the Gibson ball. Who said I caught the Gibson ball?"
"Annie did," Nuke said. "She told me and Holly that you gave her one of the most famous home run balls ever hit. That it was hit in the fall of 1988 and that no one else knew what happened to it. We all assumed it was the Gibson ball. That's what her ex wrote in his blog, too."
Crash picked up the ball and smiled as he tossed it in his hand. "Typical Annie. She's prone to exaggeration. She didn't mean the Gibson home run. She meant my home run, the one that set the minor league career record. I hit it in Asheville the last week of the Carolina League season. I gave it to her when I returned to Durham.
"But famous? Hell, The Sporting News didn't even write about it."
Crash said he read that Holly's ex had the ball and went to ask him for it. When the dope refused, Crash left his address on the slip of paper in case he changed his mind. "But then I went back and turned on the building's fire alarm and sprinkler system,'' Crash said. "When everybody left their condos, I sneaked back in and grabbed the ball.'' He smiled. "It's an old trick of mine.''
You could see Nuke's and Vaughn's shoulders sag. They looked like they had just struck out against Justin Verlander or Adam Wainwright in an elimination game. We all sat there silently for a long minute.
"So where is the Gibson ball?" Nuke finally asked.
"Who knows?" Crash said. "And why should we care? Does anyone know what happened to the Mazeroski ball? The Bobby Thomson ball? Why does everything in baseball need to be tracked and recorded and monetized these days? Why do teams have to wear eight different uniforms just so they can sell more merchandise? I don't believe in that."
"What do you believe in?" I asked him.
"Well, I believe in home runs disappearing into the night instead of immediately flying onto the eBay website. I believe in $4 beers, $2 hot dogs, the bullpen cart, the win, Vin Scully's voice on the car radio, the absence of steroid acne on a player's back, and that the arguments of WAR-loving bloggers are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing alternate tops and pink Red Sox caps. I believe in calling a shot in the ninth inning a game-winning hit rather than a walk-off, and I believe in quick, dramatic postseason games that last less than three hours.
"And now, gentlemen, you'll have to excuse me. I gotta get some sleep. I'm on the morning sales shift at Sears, and we're having a big sale on Lady Kenmores."
After Nuke dropped me off at the office, I mulled over what Crash said. I tended to agree with him. There was too much emphasis on revenue streams and ratings in baseball these days rather than just the joy and beauty of the game. It was true of all sports, really. I wished we could go back to 1988 before it all got so crazy.
I was just locking up and promising to never again take on a case with such ludicrous characters when another client appeared at the doorstep. He had long, uncombed hair and was wearing a bathrobe over a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. He smelled of marijuana.
"Name's Lebowski, but call me the Dude," he said, extending his hand. "I was wondering if you could help me find a rug. It really tied the place together."