(We pick up the action now as the town wails and mourns the death of hometown hero and star Red Sox pitcher Willie Gillante, whose untimely collapse cost the team a World Series bid…)
The Tale of the Toppled Hurler
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016. All rights reserved.
It was old news for us a week later when, just for the record, we printed an announcement from the Gillante family attorney that had been all over the media for days. Willie, unbeknownst to the public, had been undergoing treatment for months for mild arrhythmia, a random fluttering of the heart, a condition exacerbated no doubt by chewing tobacco and high-fat red meat. Even so, the Sox doctors said he’d been responsive to a number of treatments that rendered his condition, in their words, “non life-threatening.” Witness his performance this season – until now. As a letter to the editor put it, how ironic that the better the Sox played, the more Willie worsened.
The fact was that Willie had slowly been killing himself. Was the demon his addiction to winning; going to any lengths? Had he convinced himself that any harm his superstitious ritual might cause his body, the chewing of tobacco and the steady diet of high-fat beef were worth it; crucial good-luck charms necessary for such success? Mix in the stress of a must-win situation there in Yankee Stadium, and why would it come as a surprise that his own stretch as the top of the seventh was about to start that cool October night in the Bronx would be his last?
Willie’s cousin Rocco called to say that what he had told me was true at the time. Later, the family needed to be left alone to absorb the shock, and then more time to decide how to release the news, and to whom and in what order. “Notice you got the first call?” Rocco said.
They buried Willie in the cemetery next to St. Theresa’s Church. The crowd was kept to family and intimate friends. The grief around town was high-pitched, keening and palpable. It didn’t ease off for a month. Parents all over were stripping the magic from the Willie story as gently as they could for the children. The Hercules of Hurlers, Willie “Gee” Gillante, a player revered and worshiped by the youth, we editorialized, was human after all; a role model in some respects and not in others. Human, yet no less great. Witness the numbers he posted as the leader for so long of the Red Sox Nation.
The fact was that Willie had slowly been killing himself. Was the demon his addiction to winning; going to any lengths? Had he convinced himself that any harm his superstitious ritual might cause his body, the chewing of tobacco and the steady diet of high-fat beef were worth it; crucial good-luck charms necessary for such success? Mix in the stress of a must-win situation there in Yankee Stadium, and why would it come as a surprise that his own seventh-inning stretch that cool October night in the Bronx would be his last?
As a Hartsdalian, I could not keep my feelings at bay, or see things straight down the middle which, as the theory goes, is the obligation of the journalist. But how could I not experience sadness, numbness and shock at a time like this, and not express it in my reports? I actually teared up during interviews with fellow members of the Hartsdale High School class of 1987, from which we were graduated together with the one and only Willie Gillante.
Jimmy wrote a story about the mass grieving going on in town. “I wish it was me, instead,” one fan said. “And I have a funny feeling – what do they call it? — survivor’s guilt.”
It took about a month before things quieted down around town. Parents struggled to explain to the children that their hero, the Hercules of Hurlers, Willie “Gee!” Gillante, was human after all. Had he put winning ahead of taking care of his own self? One theory was that he was an addict, and at his core was addicted to winning games as a member of the starting rotation for his team, the one he grew up rooting for, the Boston Red Sox.
To him, many said, superstition was an adjunct to addiction. So he would chew a certain amount of tobacco and eat a particular high-fat beef, cheese and bacon sandwich, with mushrooms, before every game in Boston and New York as long as the team was playing better than .500 ball, winning more games than they were losing. In Willie’s mind, an idea adopted by scores of fans, the “Willie Gee” burger was crucial to the ball club’s success. Not everyone went along with Willie’s notion that the meal should be washed down with a juicy chaw of tobacco, though.
Hartsdale mourned hard, becoming the epicenter for ripples of grief that spread in ever-widening circles throughout New England.
They finally called it a heart attack, brought on by a build-up of unspent gases, aggravated by tobacco and a diet fueled more by superstition than sound nutrition. All that was needed was a trigger, and that was provided by the stress of pitching that must-win game in New York that Monday night in October.
There’s talk about a service in the spring to honor Willie at Fenway Park during the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May when the Yankees would be in town. Jimmy noted that the Saints, our home-grown band gone on to international stardom, would perform. Need it be said, Jimmy wrote, that bandleader Harry Hardcore is also late not of only Hartsdale, but also of the class of ’87 at the high school, same as Willie.
Now that the Willie story was slowing down, I felt more comfortable about getting a change of scene for myself and so I confirmed my reservations for the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., which was being held this year in Manhattan.
Jimmy was thoroughly schooled by now in the fundamental maxim of the newsroom: When in doubt, leave it out.
He was also moving around the place like a pilot whale and I think he was getting better at my job than me. I gave him a pep talk, booked three nights at the Edison Hotel, which was a short walk from convention headquarters at the Times Square Hilton and, despite the perquisite of my IRE membership and the Hilton’s group rate, a tidy sum less expensive. Not only did I like the Edison, but my publisher, Harding Sawyer, never balked when I presented him the bill.
We made deadline and I set out the next night, a Thursday, for the Route 128 train station in Westwood and the 9:36 p.m. Northeast Corridor Amtrak into Penn Station. It was 2:30 a.m. Friday when I at last hopped in a cab for the ride to Midtown and my hotel. Thirty minutes and one shower later, I flopped down on the bed and entered into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up in time for the meet-and-greet luncheon at the Hilton, followed by a session on how reporters in Washington State dug out how speed traps in small towns yielded more revenue than property taxes. If they can’t raise revenue one way, it’d have to be another.
The next morning, Sunday, I slept in and skipped the convention breakfast and the concluding remarks. I packed up my bags and wandered around the city, wheeling my suitcase behind me. My phone was stuffed inside there to keep me from being distracted.
I had plenty of time to gaze around before my train left in the early afternoon. I strolled toward Times Square and my thoughts turned to lunch; specifically, the signature bacon mushroom Swiss burger at the HoJo’s. This New York City version of Willie Gee’s favorite pre-game meal, called the Broadway Double-Decker there, was served to me with fries, cole slaw and a Pepsi. The sliced button mushrooms were smothered in the cheese.
After lunch, I strolled down 42nd Street, where I heard a door slam shut in an alley and saw a man in a white tee-shirt, checkered cook’s pants and grease-stained apron emerge. He stopped on the sidewalk, lit a cigarette, exhaled with pleasure, and turned to acknowledge me with a nod.
“You can’t smoke near the kitchen door,” he said by way of explanation.
He introduced himself as Joel, a cook at the HoJo’s, and said my IRE badge, Red Sox cap and the luggage gave me away as a conventioneer.
“You’re a reporter?” he asked.
I nodded yes.
He said he was once a Mets fan, never had any truck with the New York Yankees, and now rooted for the Red Sox. Then he asked me if I had covered the game where Willie collapsed. I told him I’d followed the ambulance to the hospital and I thought Willie would be fine, but when I got home, right on deadline, I learned he’d died.
“How about you?” I asked him.
He said he was right here, working the eleven-to-seven shift, handling the brunt of both the lunch and dinner crowds, and dropped into a tavern nearby to watch the game. Like every other time Willie started at Yankee Stadium, HoJo’s had prepared him his lucky pre-game meal, complete with the fresh chanterelles from his parents’ garden that were shipped in by train and delivered to the Hojo kitchen from Penn Station by bike messenger. Sauteed just so by the grill man, they were folded in with the bacon, Swiss cheese and beef and sent along to the visitors’ clubhouse in a special insulated box.
“The grill man disappeared a day or two later for some reason,” Joel said. “Could’ve gotten messed up with drugs. Not like it hasn’t happened around here before. He was new; just another short-order man, come and gone.”
We shook hands and Joel turned and walked back down the alley toward the kitchen door. I squinted to try and make out the title of a paperback that was stuffed in his back pocket, the cover facing out. I couldn’t be sure, and the book receded from view as Joel marched away.
A Mustang that looked familiar roared down the street and skidded to a stop a few feet away. A man tore from the car and raced my way. I fled toward Broadway, my luggage trailing behind. I zig-zagged through the pedestrians crowding the sidewalks and darted down whatever alley I came across. When I glanced back over my shoulder and caught no sign of him, I stopped, bent over, put my hands on my knees, struggled to catch my breath, and calmed myself. Then I felt a poke in the small of my back.
I turned around to see the barrel of a gun now trained on my gut. I looked up into the face of a tall man with slicked-back red-blonde hair, dressed in a rich, buttery, soft, supple, tan, hip-length leather jacket, a garment I knew I’d seen before. I also knew that face. It belonged to a guy called Russell, the same chap who’d teamed up with a big fat man to kidnap me four years ago after Harry Hardcore disappeared.