It’s spring training. Get a full perspective with new entries from the chipalatta team.
- Chip Bailey: Lots to watch as Astros’ hope springs eternal.
- Dan Peschong: Spring training really matters, except when it doesn’t.
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By Brian Todd
The orange rental car pulls off the side of a lonely highway in the late Florida night, gravel crunching beneath the tires. Inside, the figure cuts the engine, emerges from the car and checks the GPS on his cell phone. He’s been here before, but a place like this, well, maps and memories can be a bit foggy. He ducks into the back seat of the midsized sedan, picking up an old box with the words “Property of Terry Puhl” written on the side. Laden with his burdens, the man heads down a dirt path into the swamp. In the distance, an alligator croaks its deadly cry.
The dust and dirt has collected on his wingtips by the time he reaches the small shack among the cypress and mangrove trees. Before he can climb the rickety steps to the ramshackle building, a voice calls out from inside. “You be late.” It’s a woman’s voice, but bitter and hissing like an angry snake. “Get in here. We’ve work to do.”
Each step groans its complaint as he climbs to the door and slowly pulls it open. “Madam Skulls, I’m so sorry,” he says. “There was a conference call. I was trying to make a trade. Any trade.”
She pats the crystal ball in the middle of the table at which she sits. “You think I don’t know? Now sit down.”
He plops the box on the table. Like the stairs and the door, it creaks a protest at the added burden to its life.
“You bring it all?” she asks.
“Hair, toenails, blood. Everything,” he says. “I’ve got the doll and the string. And, well, the …”
“Don’t go sayin’ its name!” The hiss in Madam Skulls’ voice grows insistent. “If you name it all, the spells, well, we could see a repeat of the last time.”
“About that,” he says. “I wanted to lose enough that people wouldn’t start clamoring for me to acquire veteran players at the deadline. I wanted to be bad enough to keep ‘the plan’ on track. But you … I mean 111 games?”
A smile creases her face. It does not reassure the man. “You play with the black arts,” she says, “and sometimes things not go your way. You must be specific on what the spirits do for you. Don’t go leavin’ your prayers to chance.”
He shakes his head. “Not this time. I thought it all out. I got plans.”
“Hmm, we see.”
He reaches into the box, pulling a splinter of wood and a box with a doll. “This might be the most important spell,” he says. “Can we start with this and get it right?”
“You bring his blood too?”
He nods and hands over a vial of deep red fluid. “Now this spell will be tricky,” he says as Madam Skulls takes the doll—a Ken doll—from its packaging then begins to tape the chunk of wood, taken from a broken bat in Oklahoma City, to the doll’s hands. “I just want him to stop hitting in the last week or so of spring training. I need an excuse to send him down to AAA. But after that, I need the spell lifted. This cannot be permanent.”
Madam Skulls shakes her head. “Why you do this to the boy?”
“It’s all about arbitration eligibility in three years and saving money for the 2017 season.”
“And they says I work the dark arts. Ha!”
“Look,” he says, “if you can’t guarantee he’ll get his swing back once he gets to Oklahoma City, I don’t want this spell done at all.”
She takes the small sample of blood and pours it over the doll’s head then sprinkles a gray powder onto the doll. Suddenly a flash of light mushrooms into the air above the doll, but amazingly it is not burnt. “Like the flash, his bat miss the balls for a fortnight. Nothing more,” she says. “But I keep the doll, just to be safe.”
“I don’t know if I want you to keep the …”
“You not trust Madam Skulls!” she screams. “Get out. Go to your green diamond and pray to God for a miracle.”
“No, no. I trust you, but I worry that, well, the doll might fall into the wrong hands.”
“It leave my home, the doll lose its power,” she says. “You trust me or you don’t.” The old woman crossed her bare arms, waiting for the man to come to a decision.
“I trust you. I do. I just, crap, well, here’s the next spell.”
And on they went. A lock of hair and a lump of soil from a city across the Gulf, and she cast a spell of patience for the short man. A vial of blood drained into a bowl, and the powdered brains of a crow to give wisdom to a fleet-footed young man who played too foolishly before. The macabre concoction then lit aflame by a white powder and “the spirits.” Spells of strength and health for the one who squats and the one who will run up and down a hill.
One by one, she blesses the clipped fingernails from the right hands of nearly twenty young men, and the nails from the left hands of nearly ten more.
“Now this something special I make for you. Only a little extra money,” the old woman says, a sweetness entering her tone.
“Look, I’m not made of money, Madam Skulls.”
“True?” she asks. It came out like an accusation. “You got $10 million in your budget. You think Madam Skulls not read ESPN or Crawfish Boxes?”
“That’s for my players,” he complains.
“This for players,” she says. “Powdered horn of bull, burned with eye of newt …”
“That’s a real thing?”
“Do not interrupt!” she demands. “Eye of newt and skin from baseball belonged to Dave Smith. Burned at midnight when full moon comes. You take these ashes and sprinkle them into bullpen on the floor.”
“Even on the road?”
“Every day of game. You do this yourself, or by the power of Tony Eusebio’s hitting streak leads be slippin’ away like snakes in water.”
“Every day! I swear!”
“Good,” she says, and finally the old woman seems satisfied. “Now you remind Mister Crane, he bring a piece of judge’s robe and TV Guide turned to page with CSN Houston listings. I fix his cable contract problem.”
He nods his head. “I’ll tell him.”
Now, Madam Skulls got a question for you:
* If you play with Dark Art, what you be asking the spirits to help you with? And don’t be asking for a World Series! If it that easy, Madam Skulls make everyone a winner.