A T.J. Jackson Mystery #3
Something's Wrong in the Birthplace of Baseball
In life, he was one of the all-time greats, a trailblazing icon
who played the game with unmatched passion and style.
In death, his mystique only grew, the circumstances of his demise shrouded in controversy and myth.
When he passed into legend it was believed his like would never be seen again.
But now he's come back.
And it's up to T.J., LouAnne and Bortnicker
to solve the riddle of Roberto's Return
BUY THE BOOK
|Pre-Teens / Teens|
December 31, 1972
Morty Barrett was in a foul mood. Here it was, New Year's Eve, and he was stuck in a second-rate airport on a third-rate island when he should be at the hotel bar of the San Juan Conquistador, or maybe poolside, knocking back one of those fancy multicolored rum drinks with an umbrella stuck in it. But no, he couldn't get out of this glorified hangar they called San Juan International because they'd misplaced his baggage, and every person with a name tag whom he'd spoken to was more inept than the one before. Not that they weren't friendly, but if just one more attendant shrugged their shoulders with a "so sorry, be patient, we look," he was going to scream.
Because Morty knew all about good service. He was the owner, general manager and head of entertainment at the Pocono Hideaway, a resort nestled into the Pennsylvania mountain range that lent the hotel its name. His wife Doris had tried to talk him out of buying it back in the mid-1960s, saying they were getting in over their heads, but he'd proven her wrong. The matching diamond necklace and earrings she was sporting at the moment were a testament to that. In fact, she'd come to be a valuable partner in running the place, whether it involved keeping tabs on the restaurant’s waitstaff, calling out numbers on Wednesday afternoon bingo, or schmoozing with the mostly matronly women who'd schlepped their families to the Poconos from Pittsburgh or Philly instead of trekking to the distant Catskills scene.
The Pocono Hideaway could be all things to all people: a honeymoon destination, complete with its signature heart-shaped bathtubs; or a wholesome family oasis where harried parents could dump off the kids at the well-staffed pool or lakefront, in addition to arts and crafts and such, and just relax.
But where Morty really shone was as the master of ceremonies for nightly adult activities as the Hideaway's restaurant turned into a top-flight nightclub, featuring singers, musicians and comedians from as far away as New York, some of whom had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Morty loved creating a steady patter with the audience, entertaining them with rapid-fire jokes that usually had them doubled over - especially after a couple drinks. There was no place on earth he'd rather be. In this dump he was just another overweight, balding tourist with a camera hanging from his neck. But at the Hideaway he was an attraction.
Maybe that was the source of his anger tonight. He and Doris had to close down the resort every winter for a few weeks of refurbishing and because, despite being in a mountain range, they were nowhere near a skiable slope, and that left the habitually antsy Morty with time on his hands. Most years the Barretts found themselves visiting Doris's parents in Boca Raton, but this season he’d let her talk him into a trip to Puerto Rico, mostly because he couldn't stand her folks to begin with. So he'd booked them into the swanky Conquistador on the recommendation of a longtime Hideaway patron. If he could only get there. It was coming up on 9:00 PM, the empty luggage carousel was going round and round, and to top it off, the kid was crying. Again.
“Doris, now what?” he moaned as his wife tried to soothe their wailing eight year-old.
“Morty, somebody stole his baseball glove,” she hissed, hugging the child tightly.
“What! Where? On the plane? Cripes, we just got here!” he thundered. The boy looked up from his mother's embrace, his curly hair smashed flat where she'd held him to her breast. His eyes were red rimmed. “I... just put it down...for a...second,” he said in halting gasps.
“But I told ya not to bring it in the first place!” cried the exasperated father. “I mean, who did you think you were gonna play ball with down here, anyway?”
At that, the child reburied himself in his mother's arms. “Have a heart, Morty,” she admonished, her diamonds tinkling. “You know how much he loves that glove. He takes it everywhere.”
She was right. The kid cherished his beat up glove. Why, he didn't know. Nathaneal was a disaster as a little leaguer, couldn't get out of his own way. He preferred to just sit in front of their Zenith color TV watching the Pirates, reshuffling his hundreds of Topps baseball cards into piles by position or team, and pounding his tattered glove to accentuate good catches or timely hits the Buccos were pulling off on their way to another solid season at Three Rivers Stadium.
Now Morty was stuck with a miserable kid for the next week. That is, if he could ever get out of this godforsaken airport.
“Why does the child cry?”
Morty turned to face a black man with close-cropped hair dressed in a Banlon shirt and slacks. He was every bit of Morty's six feet in height, but much unlike the tourist, he was sinewy muscle from head to toe. A small canvas carry bag was slung over his shoulder.
Embarrassed, Morty shrugged and explained, “We just got here, and somebody stole his baseball glove.”
The black man frowned, then squatted down next to the boy and tapped him on the shoulder.
Hiccupping, Nathaneal wiped his nose and peered out from his mother's bear hug. His eyes opened wide, and Morty thought his son was about to have a seizure.
“You have lost your glove?” the man said in gently accented English.
The child opened his mouth to reply, but no words came forth.
“Say something, son,” prodded Morty.
“Y-you're Roberto Clemente,” the boy stammered.
“Yes, I am Clemente,” the man answered quietly. “This glove, it is your favorite?”
“Yeah. I...wear it when I watch your team play on TV.”
Roberto Clemente smiled broadly, his teeth a brilliant white. “You are a Pirates fan?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Uh, yeah,” said the boy, who was now just sniffling. “I like all you guys. Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen and Bill Mazeroski. I have all your bubblegum cards.”
Clemente nodded seriously, his brow furrowed as if contemplating some great mystery. “Then I must ask a favor of you, amigo,” he said earnestly. “You see that plane out there?” he said, pointing to an ancient DC-7 propeller cargo plane being loaded on the runway. “I am about to leave for Nicaragua. There was a terrible earthquake there, and I am personally bringing supplies to the victims who have been cheated out of the aid we have tried to send.” He looked back out the plate glass window into the darkness where some palm trees swayed in the breeze. “I am going to make sure the supplies arrive this time. We are flying boxes and boxes of materials there tonight.
“But I did something silly, amigo. I packed my glove in this satchel because I thought I would maybe have time to play ball with some of the children there. Because of some mechanical problems my plane has been delayed, as you can see, and there will be no opportunity to visit the children. So, my young friend,” he said, unzipping the bag and reaching in, “would you take care of this for me until I return?” He pulled from the carry bag a well-oiled, mahogany-colored Rawlings XFG-1 fielder’s glove that glistened in the terminal’s florescent lights and handed it to the astounded boy, who accepted it as one might the most fragile Ming Dynasty vase.
“Mr. Clemente?” said Morty, after clearing his throat, “you're serious here?”
“Yes, of course,” the ballplayer replied. “I will return in a couple days, God willing. You will be staying in San Juan?”
“At the Conquistador,” he answered, sticking out his hand. “Morty Barrett,” he said, feeling Clemente's vise-like grip. “This is my wife, Doris.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, batting her false eyelashes.
Nathaneal just stared at the glove in his grasp.
Clemente grinned. “When I return, I will come to the Conquistador and bring the new glove for you. Then, you and I will have a catch, eh?”
“You mean it?” asked the boy.
“I tell you the truth, amigo,” he replied, extending his hand.
Nathaneal Barrett shifted the glove to his left hand and shook with the great Clemente.
Morty, who had been peering out through the window himself, turned back to the ballplayer with a sense of alarm. “Hey, Mr. Clemente,” he said with a pained look, “I'm no expert, but I was in the service during the war...Army Air Corps. And I gotta tell you, that plane doesn't look too kosher. In fact, it doesn't look like it'll even get off the ground. And you've got it loaded with supplies? Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I gave my word,” he said firmly. “Don't worry, Mr. Barrett. God will take care of me.” He looked down at Nathaneal. “So we have a date to play catch at the Conquistador?”
Clemente mussed the child's curly mop and threw the bag over his shoulder. “Happy New Year,” he said in the deserted terminal. “I must get out to the runway. Adios.”
They were the last people to see Roberto Clemente alive.