This morning, while trying and failing to find an eloquent way to finally wrap up “Happy,” which is surely the least focused, most digressive multipart Cardboard Gods series yet, I came upon an amusing site called Baseball Heckle Depot, which generously provides material for broadening one’s repertoire for yelling things at baseball guys, such as “Do you want my autograph?” and “You’ve got less hits than an Amish website!” The “True Stories” link brings you to a page that includes, among many other anecdotes featuring the beered-up and seated hurling invective down upon the standing, the following fan’s-eye view of the All-Star pictured in this 1977 card:
Ron LeFlore was a member of the Detroit Tigers back in the 70’s, and he was discovered by the late Billy Martin while in prison playing semi-pro ball. LeFlore could steal bases with the best of them, and had some pop in his bat, but wasn’t much of a fielder, which was no small source of frustration for Tigers fans. When a fairly routine grounder rolled through Ronnie’s legs in a tight game one night, the guy behind me yelled “Hey LeFlore, why don’t you pretend you’re still in the prison leauges [sic], and bend over!!”
I wonder what my conception of prison was before I read Ron LeFlore’s 1978 autobiography. When I was a kid, I developed my reading skills by reading very little else but baseball books, so whatever knowledge I had of the world beyond baseball and my rural Vermont town came to me through the comic book exploits of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four and television shows such as Happy Days, Lost in Space, Batman, Kung Fu, The Waltons, Wonder Woman, and Welcome Back, Kotter. With that in mind I probably viewed prison in my pre-LeFlore era as a barred room where exotically colorful villains or stoic, wrongfully accused heroes would occasionally be placed until they could escape to wreak more havoc or exonerate themselves, respectively. This conception, along with the fact that the idea of prison did not exist in the great majority of the shows I watched (unless I missed an early Happy Days episode in which Richie’s older brother was sent away to the Big House for life for something unspeakably heinous, which would have explained Stretch’s abrupt, final, never-mentioned absence from the show after Season One), must have made prison vague and safely distant to me. I had plenty of things to worry about as a kid, as all kids do, but prison was not one of them. At least until I read Ron LeFlore’s autobiography, that is.
I really don’t remember much about the book, but I certainly do recall the author describing the inmate practice that served as the punchline of the above heckling anecdote (and of the great majority of all prison-based humor). If I recall correctly, LeFlore himself managed to avoid the culture of ass-rape, but even so his description was enough to alter my idea of what it might be like if I was ever tossed in prison. Worse, LeFlore’s tale came in the context of baseball, which made up more of my world than anything else you could name. It was a baseball story, and since my life was built on baseball stories, it was a story about my life. Hence, prison—and not the kind of prison where Burgess Meredith’s Penguin might waddle around squawking for a few minutes before knocking out the guard with sleeping gas from his umbrella and escaping, but the kind of prison where a baseball player saw ass-rapers running across the yard with shit on their dicks—became a part of my life, or at least a new thing to fear.
So far, knock wood, I’ve managed to avoid prison. I’ve even avoided prison’s more temporary, booze-scented cousin, jail. I have been briefly handcuffed twice, but in the manner of practically every episode of Kung Fu, each of the apprehensions by authorities was wrongful (I only wish I could have had the presence of mind in each case to utter a couple pause-filled, soft-voiced Kwai Chang Caine-isms, something like “The Way . . . forgives . . . the sad cruelties . . . of man” or “The gentle reed . . . bends . . . in even the very strongest . . . wind.”). In one instance, after a Red Kross show in Hoboken, two of my friends had gone through a New Jersey Path Train turnstile together, and cops staking out the station who thought I was one of the fare-beaters also thought I was resisting arrest when I continued to walk down the train platform after they had yelled at me to stop. A few years earlier, while living in a house in the woods with four other students, I’d been yanked out of my bed late one night and cuffed when a very odd girl who lived at the house, and who believed she was alone in the house that night, called 911 to report what she thought was an intruder.
Other than that, I guess my experience that most closely resembled the kind of thing that might lead to incarceration was when I got busted at boarding school for participating in one of the joyous bong sessions described earlier in this four-part exploration. This bust led to my expulsion and to the expulsion of the one other person in the room who, like me, had committed an earlier suspension-worthy transgression at the school. This other person was my friend Happy Al Raymond.
I only saw Happy Al once after the day we were both sent packing. It was the following year, when some of us returned to the school during the homecoming weekend to get plastered together in a room at an Econo Lodge near the school. Al had thickened just a little around the middle by then, the slight alcogut the most easily visible element of his embrace of a new persona, that of the superficially and generically merry frat boy. He had a beer mug in his hand the whole weekend, and his standard reply to everything was a polished bark of laughter and little else.
And that was it. No more Happy Al. Nobody saw him again, nobody heard from him. I embarked on a largely aimless existence built around a vague desire to live a life that included writing, naps, and respite from loneliness. It turns out that while I was groping in my half-assed way toward my lazily conceived idea of happiness, Al was becoming an extremely successful Republican Party campaign operative. I don’t know if this made him happy, but I have always assumed that highly successful people are driven to their success in part by the happiness they find in doing their job.
By 2002, he had apparently become the go-to guy when a certain kind of campaign business needed to be done. His most celebrated or notorious exploit to that point (depending on your political leanings) had been when he’d engineered the mass blanketing of New Jersey households with calls right near kickoff of the Super Bowl. The calls, which were meant by virtue of their timing to be an annoyance to everyone who received them, were negative attacks on one rival candidate sent (it was ingeniously and fraudulently implied) by another rival candidate, smearing both. With this and other campaign triumphs on his resume, Al’s political campaign consulting firm was contacted in 2002 with a job that other similar firms had turned down. They’d all wanted no part of it.
A high-ranking Republican Party member, James Tobin, contacted Al, as related by the back and forth between Al and a questioner in court transcripts from Tobin’s trial:
Q: What does he say?
A: He says—he tells me that he’d like to talk to me about a phone project in New Hampshire and then explains the project to me as to what it would entail.
Q: And what does he tell you?
A: He tells me that it would entail jamming, essentially disrupting, democratic party and affiliated democratic organizations’ efforts to Get-Out-The-Vote on Election Day.
Q: And after he says that, what, if anything, do you say next?
A: My response is that anything can be done.
(Next: The riveting, all-encompassing, elegaic epilogue!)