Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

The Earth Baseball Tourney: An Invitational to Disaster is a dark comedy about baseball's globalization, fanaticism, greed and killer cellphones. An excerpt...

Pre-Game: Prologue

Crack of the bat. Costa Rica’s shortstop fouled off another.

Bottom of the 9th; one away. The tiny Cambodian pitcher peered in to the catcher for the sign. But she knew what the next pitch would be. She knew, the batter knew, 58,000 delirious fans in Singapore’s new Stadium Solaria knew, and most of the 5.2 billion viewers and listeners around the planet knew.

Chhom Teuk would throw her knuckleball. The same knuckleball that had propelled her Cinderella team to this dramatic championship game. The same knuckler that had baffled foes throughout the 1st Earth Baseball Tourney, including all 27 batters in her perfecto against Fiji. The same odd pitch that was about to give Chhom another shut-out, making her the best-known Cambodian in history.

Casually perched on the mound, Chhom Teuk was the picture of poise, Zen nonchalance in cleats. No stranger to the spotlight, she had been the waifish darling of the Summer Olympics. Winning the gold in Women’s Badminton, she charmed the world with her wicked serves, shaved head and easy smile. When the Games were over, she returned to Phnom Penh a celebrity and played badminton every day along the busy riverfront. She made a decent living from a racquet endorsement deal and coaching diplomats’ kids, but missed the competitive life. When Cambodia was invited to play in the inaugural Earth Baseball Tourney, Chhom was determined to make the team.

A natural athlete, Chhom's strong wrists and long fingers enabled her to master the knuckleball. A Seattle cousin sent her a glove and a DVD called Baseball’s Top 50 Pitchers. She set up a backstop made of fishnet in a dusty park overlooking the river and practiced the hard-to-control, harder-to-hit pitch. Crowds gathered as the Badminton Queen experimented with different grips and deliveries. She studied video of Tim Wakefield (who she had a crush on). She taught herself how to throw with no spin, to make it jiggle and jump. Like a badminton grip, with a little wrist-flick at the end to give the projectile personality.

Maz Nishi, a translator at Phnom Penh’s Japanese Embassy, had his old catcher’s mitt shipped via diplomat pouch from Yakult, where he once sipped a cup of tea with the Swallows. Hearing of a phenom on the Phnom Penh, Nishi strolled by and invited the pixyish woman to play some catch. They became battery-mates, the first in Cambodia’s golden history. He helped her adjust speeds on her lovely knuckler and taught her the screwball. In the shadows of Cambodia’s gilded Royal Palace, Chhom Teuk learned to throw shadows.

Resembling a butterfly on meth, each of her pitches was a tiny work of art, a 4-D sculpture, a delight to see. It would flutter and float, uncertain about where to land. Sometime it would take its sweet time as it left Chhom’s hand, then accelerate at the end. She invented the “Khmer knuckle-scroogie” which mocked laws of physics and decency. The ball would suspend itself in mid-air, taunt the batter, then rush in.

Chhom’s quick grasp of baseball fundamentals made her an easy choice when the Cambodian national team was assembled. She became the team leader and ace pitcher. Among the few female starters in the 16-team Invitational, she was on the verge of becoming the Earth Baseball Tourney’s first MVP.

Now, in the final inning of the final game, Cambodia led Costa Rica 1-0. Each player and coach on the winning team would get a $4 million bonus, while runners-up each got two mil, so national pride wasn’t the only thing on the line.

When the name of the next batter was announced - Costa Rica shortstop Pío Lyra - five billion people carefully wrote down his name: “Pío Lyra” in Urdu, Yoruba, Aleut. Minutes earlier, the world had jotted the name of the previous batter - Bert Rocha - who was now forgotten. “Pío Lyra” in Basque, Swahili.

In 24 time zones around our orb, people crammed into kitchens, internet cafes and bars to witness this. Mexico City’s zocalo, Tiananmen Square, Red Square. All jammed with viewers of jumbo TV screens, carefully recording the name of the batter and game score, waiting for that life-altering phone call, email or text, all playing the biggest lottery in history.

This finale of the Earth Baseball Tourney was now the most-watched sports event in history, edging the World Cup’s 3.3 billion viewers. In fact, 89 percent of humans with TVs or other electronic devices were tuned into this game, the largest market share since MASH in the 20th Century. The Internet was experiencing unprecedented traffic. Sports wagering was never more intense. Any human who was awake, stopped what they were doing. Singapore’s stadium was rocking, everyone on their feet, including most heads of state (such as Myanmar’s new President - Aung San Suu Kyi), the Pope, Dalai Lama, Ernie Banks…

Lyra was 3-for-5 in Costa Rica’s semifinal win over the Uzbeks. But he’d never seen a knuckler before facing Teuk in the Prelims. She embarrassed him then (four Ks) and again today (two whiffs, a dribbler to short). Unlike some of his more macho teammates, Pío had no problems competing with a woman. Back in his native city of Limón, some of the greatest athletes were female - Olympic swimmers, sprinters, hoopsters - and he knew Teuk was something special. Man, he could really use that winners’ bonus…

Lyra got the sign from his 3rd base coach: drag bunt down the 1st base line. Maybe  the only way to get on base with this crazy bald Cambodian lady, Pío thought. Bunt on, then slugger (and ex-Blue Jay) Ernie Mesa smacks one out.

After toeing around the chalky dirt, Lyra dug into the batter’s box and fixed his gaze on Teuk’s hypnotic stare. Two unlikely heroes on the global stage during a group moment unlike any humanity had ever experienced. Crowd on its feet, howling. From the corner of his eye, Pío glimpsed a flickering outside the stadium. He glanced over the right field wall just as the neon skyline of Singapore rippled into darkness, a black velvet curtain gingerly drawn on the shimmering island metropolis.

Chhom Teuk gripped her knuckler.




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