Seventh Inning Stretch
Ricky Ginsburg

Despite his given name, Mickey Mantle Gottlieb hated baseball. Mickey considered the sport to be nine innings of slow death, bled out over four hours of his life and buried under watered-down beer, mosquitoes, rain, and the putrid odor of the four-hundred pound fan seated behind him at every game; a mass of hairy blubber, who wouldn't open a can of deodorant unless it had a pull-tab.

Viktor Clintnikov was Slavic (a word Mickey pronounced as "Slobic"). No specific country, just Slavic, and that was as close to a heritage as he'd revealed in the six years Mickey had dealt with him. Willie, Mickey's father and the sole reason the boy had been coming to the ballpark, swore that Viktor was Russian Mafia, on the run from his former employers. Yet, their choice of seats - directly behind home plate and in the never-blinking eye of network television - lent little credence to that supposition.

The tab for seats, almost fifty large for the season, was covered by the Gottlieb family liquor store; a perk Willie had chiseled into the unwritten agreement with his son. Choice seats for any fan; however, for Mickey, the seats were plastic straightjackets in the waiting room for Hell. He'd never left a game without a sunburn, a headache, and so heavily soaked with sweat that he took to keeping beach towels in his car to protect the leather seats.

Mickey had moved back to Miami right after college to run his father's liquor store when the old man had his second heart attack. The business brought the young graduate an instant six-figure income and more wine, whiskey, and women than he'd enjoyed in all his raucous years in academia. However, the deal included a sack of Jewish guilt, thus saddling the son with an obligation for several months of the year to take his dad out to the ballpark to cheer on the bottom-feeding Florida Marlins.

Willie, for his part, had become enamored with the sport several months after his wife ran off with a local sportscaster, sending him signed divorce papers by certified mail, postmarked Las Vegas. She'd claimed sexual inadequacy and mental cruelty - two topics that Willie spent a week explaining and then denying to his then ten-year-old son.

However, it was not the game that set Willie's juices flowing. Sure, there was pride in seeing the home team win - recently, something that happened only during a solar eclipse or an eight-day week. In truth, the old man could root for either side in earnest. As the ultimate uncommitted fan, he wore two hats to every game, often swapping hometown for visitor as the score waxed and waned. No, the drug for Willie was the wager, the bet, the choice of the odds, planting his flag on the soil he thought best for a profitable return.

And the bets were on every moment of the game, any situation that, until the ball left the pitcher's hand, was a crapshoot. Would Rodriguez strike out with a one-and-two count in his third at bat against the Yankees? Would Hernandez walk more than five batters in the game before the seventh inning? With two men in scoring position, could Williams get the third out? What were the odds? Where was the over/under? Willie didn't live for baseball; his passion, his addiction, was to gamble and the game was his syringe.

This is where Viktor came into the action. Throughout all of those failed seasons, Viktor had covered every one of Willie's bets - most of them in the fat man's favor. Willie had gone so far as to buy his baseball bookie a seat directly behind his, just so he could have him there every time the urge to throw down a wager struck home. It took Mickey five full seasons and most of this one to realize just how bad the gambler's thorns had scratched his father. He finally wrangled the number out of Willie several months into the current season, during the All-Star break, when his father had asked him for another loan.

Mickey had given him the first ten-thousand without question. However, his father was still getting a weekly paycheck from the store along with a nice chunk of Social Security. The second time his father asked, something didn't add up in Mickey's accounting. Not that he didn't love his dad and wouldn't give him anything he wanted, but when the old man asked for that much money, Mickey sat down with him and finally asked, why and what for.

The debt was staggering - almost a quarter of a million dollars. Mickey watched his father break down and cry for the first time in his life and was both embarrassed and frightened at what the loss meant. He'd seen the little notebook that Viktor shoved hastily in his shirt pocket when Mickey would return with a fresh load of beer, hotdogs, and pretzels; the only written record the obese bookie claimed he kept. Mickey noticed the way his father would fidget, his fingers pressed hard against his lips, when the play he was rooting for went the other way, his debt growing like weeds in the rainy season. Viktor was a size triple-extra-large slot machine and Mickey's father had his hand glued to the lever, feeding dollar bills as quick as he could.

Yet Viktor was always the jolly one at the games. From his seat directly behind Mickey, he would slap the boy's head and shake his shoulders, shouting at him to, "See how wonderful is American sport? Where I come from, use bats all the time. Not hitting balls though. Well, okay sometimes hitting balls, but usually just hitting heads!" And then he'd laugh, spit, and choke, all the while, laying down an odor that could overpower the stench of a bucket of fish rotting in the South Florida sun. Early on, Mickey had insisted that he and Willie move to empty seats further down the row in the pretext of getting into some shade. Viktor followed them, shoving people out of his way, until he could assume the same position behind them at their new location. "You don't leave poor Viktor alone, now, do you? We are team, just like Marlins."

Mickey, in a moment of pure anguish, told Viktor, "Yeah, but we can't trade you, or send you down to the Minors."

So for six years, Mickey put up with the corpulent bookie and his mustard-tinged fingers staining his clothes and stinking up his hair, but never shirking his responsibility to his father. Of course, he'd stopped his father's gambling, or at least he thought he did, and he'd told Viktor that the debt would be repaid, somewhat fearful that the man was concealing a poison-filled dart in a pocket, just waiting for the right moment to kill him KGB-style. Viktor simply shrugged.

But it all came to a head at the last game of the season.

The Mets had come to town to wrap up the slaughter. They had already clinched their division and with a string of power hitters in the first four positions of the lineup, and a pair of left-handed pitchers who threw strikes on demand, most of their games were over by the end of the fifth inning. However, the Marlins had a chance to end the season with a .500 record; all they needed was to win this game. With the local bookmakers offering unheard of point spreads, everyone from the lifeguards on the beach to the trappers in the Everglades were reaching for their wallets. Mickey was certain his dad had laid down at least one large bet with Viktor. A concern that solidified when his father began having fits of coughing every time the home team did something to send the score in the wrong direction.

They'd just finished the seventh inning stretch and Viktor started bellowing about warm beer. Mickey loved to sing the song, especially when it came to the line, "I don't care if I never come back." At the games, Mickey felt obligated to supply his father with food, feeling sorry that he'd cut off his income. And even though he really didn't want to leave Viktor and his father alone, he wasn't going to let either of them walk all the way up and back. If nothing else, the hike to the food court was a respite from sitting in the sun and the horrific smell that oozed from Viktor's body. Gratefully, he slid out of his seat and climbed the cement steps to the refreshment stand.

The stadium had only a few thousand fans scattered about its fifty-thousand seats - most of them Mets fans, who'd moved away from New York but retained a love for their team. From his vantage point, thirty rows up from their seats, Mickey could see his father and Viktor clearly, as he waited for his order to be filled. Viktor had the pad and pencil held out in front him, his eyeglasses teetering on the tip of his nose, and was scribbling and nodding in rhythm as Willie gestured at the field. Mickey was gonna shout at them, but just then Gonzalez hit a long fly ball into deep right field and the announcer started shouting, "Home run! Home run!" and the Mets fans went wild.

By the time Mickey returned to the seats and had passed out the hotdogs and beer, Willie had turned the color of spent charcoal. Viktor took two hotdogs and pressed them, along with a full container of sauerkraut and four squeeze-packs of mustard, into one bun. Mickey turned to ask him for a few napkins just as Costanza hit a screaming foul ball back over the top of the cage that slammed into Viktor's face. The impact shoved the double dog deep into Viktor's throat with the ball careening off the man's teeth and into the stands several rows to their right.

He tried to say something, but the hotdogs had jammed all inbound and outbound traffic from his lungs. Mickey thought he was just going to bite down and swallow the whole thing in one gulp, but it was just too much for the fat man's jaws to handle.

Viktor's chest and belly heaved twice and Mickey stared, waiting for him to either swallow or spit, not having any desire to intervene with either course of action. But Viktor seemed incapable of any movement other than the forced expansion of his chest in a vain attempt at sucking down a breath. His color faded slowly, almost like turning the lights down with a dimmer switch. And then he started pawing, first at his throat, then at everyone around him. Mickey had taken some First Aid training in high school - almost a dozen years passed - and it was the sort of thing he'd never forget from the hours of gory video he'd seen. He knew Viktor was choking but after six years of trying to think up ways to poison him or pay someone to take him out, Mickey was having a hard time getting out of his seat.

Here was an opportunity to eliminate the debt, remove the obnoxious fan, maybe even a chance for Mickey to find some way to enjoy baseball with his dad next season. He held onto the seatback in front him, squeezing the molded plastic in an attempt to keep himself from leaping from his seat and saving Viktor's life.

There was an odd memory of watching a car crash when Mickey was in college that suddenly played back in his head. It had all happened in slow motion - the squeal of tires, the loud bang as the two cars crumpled into each other, the roar of a waterfall of glass as the windshields exploded. He was across the street and tried to run and help the injured, but as fast as he ran, Mickey felt as though he was taking one step backward for each two steps forward. His legs had become rubbery and his feet felt like they were stuck in deep mud. It was same thing with Viktor, only Mickey was certain it was intentional for the first few seconds.

Mickey recalled something about the brain needing oxygen or it would die in a few minutes; he glanced at his watch and wondered how much longer he needed to wait. Around him, the sounds had become a loud buzzing - the stadium announcer, the sparse crowd, the vendors doing their best to use up the last of their wares as the season faded around them. He strained to hear someone shout, "Help him, he's choking" a cry that would have shaken Mickey to action, but it never came - everyone was watching for the next pitch on the three and two count to Costanza.

And in a moment of epiphany, the word 'television' popped into his head. "Holy Moses, we're on live TV. There must have been thousands of people around the world, maybe millions of them, watching not only the batter, but me, dad, and Viktor", who was now taking on a dull shade of blue. He managed to pull his mind back into real time and spun around in his seat, ready to stand and jump over the row to come to Viktor's aid.

But just as Mickey rose from his seat, Willie reached over and grabbed his son's arm. "What are you doing?"
Mickey turned and glared at his father, his eyes opening wide in amazement. "Dad?" "I said, what are you doing?"
"Viktor's choking."
Willie nodded and pointed toward the batter. "I'll betcha a hundred bucks, Costanza will get a hit before you can get Viktor breathing."
Shaking his arm free, Mickey jumped over the seats and dragged Viktor out into the main aisle. He reached into the man's pocket and tugged out the little notebook, which he tossed to his father. "Take this and head for the car. I'll be right behind you."

As Willie stumbled and ran up the concrete steps, Mickey rolled Viktor onto his back and then fell, knees first, into the enormous man's belly. The hotdogs popped out of Viktor's mouth and flew over Mickey's shoulder just as the cracking sound of another home run ball reached his ears. Mickey looked up at his father, who had paused at the top of the stairs, his eyes following the ball as it slammed into the empty seats in deep right field, and muttered to himself, "You won, dad. You won."

The rest of Ricky's website.