BY JUD LAGHI
CNN was the first to break the story: legendary slugger Babe Ruth had been reincarnated by a group of scientists. A top-secret, privately funded outgrowth of the Human Genome Project, “The Ruth That House Built” (as the newspapers dubbed it in a clever play on the name of the project’s leader, Scottish geneticist T.F. House) drew the majority of its financial backing from Major League Baseball and a consortium of international financiers. Opening Day was a joyous occasion, drawing a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium and $49.95 from each of those who got to witness the spectacle on pay-per-view, the stadium a majestic sight to behold while bathed in unseasonably warm weather and festive bunting around the upper deck.
All stops were pulled out. One of the Babe’s original uniforms was shipped in from Cooperstown, as was his trademark 55-ounce bat. Manager Joe Torre placed the legend third in the batting order, just like the good old days, and positioned him as the designated hitter. No interviews or public appearances were granted before the first pitch was thrown. It would be a great day indeed.
The top of the first inning did not lend itself to the moment, with weak-hitting shortstop Omar Vizquel blasting a home run and quickly staking the visiting Indians to a 2-0 lead. When it was the Yankees’ turn to bat, however, the electric atmosphere was almost too much to handle. Chuck Knoblauch led off with a walk and Derek Jeter came to the plate. Into the on-deck circle stepped our man: not quite as portly as we imagined from the photos, not quite as god-like either. The broad nose was there; so was the broad smile. He gave the fans a wink and a wave and they went wild. Kids cheered from the South Bronx to Peoria. Some of the kids were in their sixties.
Jeter struck out on three pitches. The legend stepped in, giving a respectful but anachronistic nod towards the pitcher. The people watched in awe. Bartolo Colon stared toward the plate, trying to hide his own nerves and discomfort with the bizarre scene. I wonder if the Bambino has ever seen a splitter, he thought to himself. He thought this in Spanish. With the ball wedged deep between his fingers, Colon wound up and delivered a pitch somewhere in the low 90s, high and inside. The sharp drop brought the pitch into the strike zone and the Babe unloaded on it, hitting a laser deep to center field that landed on the black tarpaulin. A mob of crazed souvenir hounds converged on the ball, tripping and falling over each other, several of them breaking limbs.
The Babe did his pigeon-toed trot around first base, greeted by a standing ovation from everyone in sight. His team’s first baseman waited at home plate, both for his turn at bat and to congratulate the Bambino with a high five. The Babe took a couple of quick defensive steps backwards at the gesture, his mouth twisting up all funny, and put the first baseman into what fans of professional wrestling know as a sleeper hold. The stadium went quiet, but quick. With two savagely efficient manipulations of his forearms, the Babe snapped the first baseman’s spine in two places like a matchstick and dropped him to the ground like a rag doll.
The Babe trotted back into the dugout as if nothing had happened, leaving the first baseman spasming and twitching in his wake as teammates and trainers ran out to assist. Not Sherm Daly, though. The utility infielder simply spat some Copenhagen juice to the dugout floor and stared the genetic mishap straight in the eyes. He saw something in them: a little bit of humanity, a virgin palette untainted by the moving images that ruled our lives and helped pay his check, helped put the food in the babies’ mouths.
“Hey, Bambino, you just wanna play the field, don’tcha?”
The slugger pursed his lips and motioned toward his mouth. A cigar. The big guy wants a cigar, Daly thought to himself. I better get him one. The live feed cut to a commercial while Daly desperately tried to track down El Duque in the clubhouse. The dugout phone was ringing, ringing, ringing and it was probably the boss but nobody cared just then.
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