Inside the XBL
By Jeremy Stetson
Players from the Memphis Hound Dogs are gathered around the cage, going through the daily rites of batting practice. Pitchers are shagging flies in the outfield, joking and laughing while they dodge the occasional fly ball hit in their direction. Infielders take grounders, batboys play pepper, and manager Bucky Flippo spits a steady stream of tobacco juice on the green artificial turf of Graceland Stadium.
But as the players attend to business, they all keep an interested eye on Ricardo Pentagram.
Pentagram, the slugging first baseman of the Hound Dogs, is arguably the first star to emerge from the XBL. Armed with his bulging biceps and a wand of steel (specifically a titanium blend Big Stick Slugger with a lightening bolt drawn in magic marker on the barrel), Pentagram has been hitting home runs at an amazing pace. Through 17 games, the Memphis mangler has smashed 19 round trippers, easily leading that category in a league already making its mark as a fabulous offensive show. Pentagram swings for the fences with every at bat, both during games and during batting practice, and he swings at another offering from the batting practice pitcher and (Ping!) lofts it into the waiting arms of his admiring fans in the left-field bleachers.
Flippo watches his big slugger and beams. He has been around baseball for many years, including three seasons as traveling secretary for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he has never before had the chance to lead a team on the field and he is relishing the opportunity now. "Ricardo is the Man on this team," he gushes, sending another tobacco juice missile onto the carpet. "He has done everything I could ask. When he got here, he told me not to worry about the offense; he would take care of everything for me. Sure enough, hes been a total monster with the bat. I havent seen anything like it, and I saw Stargell in his prime. This guy is going to be a legend. Look at the way he swings that stick! Plus, none of this has gone to his head at all. Hes still the humble farm kid he was when he rolled in here."
The story of Ricardo Pentagram starts in a small farming community in Iowa. Always a talented boy, Ricardo credits his emergence to a stormy night not long after his father passed away.
"I was up late, looking out the window," recalls Pentagram, "when suddenly lightening struck a huge old oak tree about a quarter mile out from our farm. It was still storming, but I ran out the house and up to the tree, and I could see that it had split in half. One half had fallen on top of a UPS truck, which was on its side, and on the ground by the back of the truck was this beautiful Big Stick Slugger. Ive had it with me ever since."
Armed with his weapon of choice, Pentagram signed with the Philadelphia organization out of high school and had battled all the way up to AA ball at just 23 years of age. When the XBL opportunity came up, though, Pentagram jumped over to the fledgling new league without a second thought.
"I got tired of them holding me back from the Show," Pentagram says with some bitterness. "They were always bitching about my hitting the curve ball. I told them it didnt matter if I couldnt track it; no pitcher would ever get a fastball past me and they couldnt throw breaking balls forever. But they just wouldnt listen to me."
Ping! Ping! Ping! Pentagram finally lays down his steel lumber and strolls over to talk to this correspondent, signing autographs on pieces of paper thrust at him by an adoring throng of XBL fans. He signs three, four, five times, then sits down, scanning the field alertly.
How does it feel being the first big XBL star?
"It feels great! This league needs someone to step up, someone to show just how a high power league like this can work. Babe Ruth launched a revolution in that other league; guys like me will do the same thing here. Not that Im comparing myself to Babe Ruth; I cant hold my beer like he could. Ha ha ha."
Pentagram has extra inducement to swing for the fences; his base salary (a relative XBL bargain at $36,500) includes a $1,000 bonus for each home run over thirty and an extra $50,000 bonus if he breaks sixty. "I plan to get all of that," Pentagram says happily. "I saw the teams controller the other day and he grumbled something about my bonuses breaking the bank, and I told him he better open up a new bank then. Ricardo aint stopping for no one, I told him. He looked like he was sucking a lemon. Ha ha ha."
Ricardo Pentagram is a budget-busting nightmare for the financial types of the XBL. But for the fans, and for the officials trying to launch this bold new league right, he is just what the doctor ordered. "We are completely thrilled with Ricardo and all the big sluggers in this league," enthuses XBL founder Zig Mantequilla. "After all, big hits and lots of offense are what the XBL is all about."
League officials are very unhappy in the aftermath of the 25 minute fight that followed two beanings in a game between the New Jersey Pipe-Bombs and the D.C. Bills last week. The ramifications of that incident included fines, suspensions and a possible expulsion from the league.
To recap, New Jersey starting pitcher Bruno Norwalski, perhaps frustrated after opening the season 0-3 with an 16.35 ERA, decided to take revenge after surrendering back to back to back home runs in the Bills second inning. The next batter, Larry Lundt, barely had time to dig in before Norwalski threw one right at his head, knocking Lundt to the ground. Three times Norwalski took aim at Lundts padded earmuffs and the third time was a charm; Lundt lay unconscious on the field for five minutes and is still day to day with a grade two concussion.
Bills pitcher Joey Nun, of course, had a lot of pressure to respond, and he came up aces. The first pitch to Pipe-Bombs leadoff hitter Greg Frisk in the bottom of the second drilled him right on the top of the head, knocking Frisk out and his cap spinning into the Pipe-Bombs dugout. Both teams charged the field and a full-scale donnybrook ensued. By one unofficial count, 17 teeth permanently left their sockets during the melee. Fourteen fans were arrested while attempting to charge the field; four of those were knocked unconscious by the lovely yet muscular New Jersey cheerleaders.
Home plate umpire Randy Hurst tried to restore order by tossing Nun, Norwalski, and both managers out of the game. The remainder of the contest passed without further combat.
Hurst has been suspended by the league pending a hearing to decide whether his contract should be terminated. "Damn it," snarled one league marketing official, "we had been waiting for something like this since this league started. We finally had an incident we could publicize and Hurst decides to play peacemaker. They might have gone after each other two or three more times if he had kept his damn nose out of it. It says plain as day in the umpires manual to let them just play. His ass will be out of here tomorrow if I have anything to say about it!"
Pipe-Bomb coach Stu Stumeyer was also fined for not ordering a retaliatory beaning in the third inning.
League officials are somewhat concerned by the slow start of the New Jersey Pipe-Bombs. "We need them to contend to optimize our TV ratings, but so far they havent been cooperating," snarled Marketing Chief Telly Winpers. "They need to get it in gear or something will have to be done about it." The Pipe-Bombs are 4-12, the worst record in the league to date.... Montanas Ralph Milton pulled a rare trick against San Diego last week: he struck out six batters in the first inning. "He was throwing sliders that nobody could catch up to," sighed Militia manager Herk Fudley, "and that included the catcher. Balls were bouncing all over the place." Perhaps worn out by the 47 pitches it took to extricate himself from that jam, Milton surrendered six runs in the second inning and was removed.... Florida Keys pitcher Herman Cruz has been somewhat reluctant to use certain of the variously colored balls the XBL employs. "The other day," complained umpire Greg Ericson, "he tried to toss out every ball I put in play unless it was the red and green one. I waited for him to turn around and look towards the outfield and then I threw a teal and orange one right at the back of his head. Nailed him dead center. Next time, maybe he wont be so damned picky."... League Chief Financial Officer Norman Pucker is aghast at the number of balls the league is going through. "I figured we would use maybe five or six balls a game, but do you know that when someone hits a foul ball, fans want to keep it for themselves? Where did they get that idea? What do they think, this is a charity? Those balls are expensive. This is screwing up my budget. I need to discuss this with Zig." Vegas Bandits third baseman Hank Purkell is the first player this year to knock himself out by hitting his head with his bat while swinging.