While shopping for men's adventure novels at the big local used book sale this spring I stumbled upon Don Kowet's The 7th Game, a 1977 paperback thriller from Dell. How could I not be hooked by a book whose cover featured a baseball with a burning fuse?! Throw in explosives and a gambling / kidnapping plotline and I was all in. Plus, I figured, with the Phillies poised to roll their way at least to the World Series it would make for a great post to coincide with their return to the Fall Classic that starts this evening.
In The 7th Game, Jim Pallafox is a left-handed rookie pitcher for the Oakland Golds who has set the baseball world on fire. With the Golds in the World Series against the legendary New York Patriots, the club is relying on the red-haired, flame-throwing southpaw to anchor their attack in games 1, 4 and – if it goes that far – game 7. But what his teammates and the media don't know is that Pallafox is hiding a secret that will rope him into a big-money World Series fix with more than money on the line. The life of a 3-year-old girl hangs in the balance.
I'll admit that I'm no longer a big baseball fan by any stretch. I spent many days and nights watching and listening to the Phillies of the 1970s and early 80s with my Dad, but when the team of my youth was broken up by trades, free agency and retirement my interest in the game started to wane. That and the fact that the season is interminable, games have gotten longer, players switch teams like they change wives and, oh right, I have a life all contributed to my drifting from the "national pastime".
Though I was intrigued by The 7th Game's late 70s setting, Kowet paints a glum picture of what's going on behind-the-scenes at the ballpark: black and white ballplayers appear to be self-segregated and frequently at each others' throats; casual drug use (black players) and booze (white players) are rampant; when players aren't cheating on their wives with floozies they're using their friendship with stars to lure unsuspecting jail bait to their sleazy townhouses; and, the only real reason to own a team is for it to lose money so you can write it off against your real business ventures.
I'll pause while Abner Doubleday rolls over in his grave.
But I don't mind a picture of professional baseball that's probably fairly accurate for its time (I'll have to dig up a juicy, salacious tell-all from the era). Unfortunately, Kowet's book is laugh-out-loud funny, not only due to its half-baked tv-movie-of-the-week story, but also because of an avalanche of implausible plot points, hysterical descriptions and flimsy attempts at disguising franchises and people:
- Pallafox, a rookie, not only won 30 games during the regular season (30!) but also came out of the bullpen in the fifth game of the National League Championship Series to record the final out;
- Somehow, Pallafox – a rookie sensation who, I'll remind you, won 30 games (!) – has kept it secret that he has a three-year-old daughter from his college days;
- Golds owner Walter Kelly not only has a cozy relationship with the owner of a sleazy Vegas casino but also places a $500,000.00 bet on his team... to lose;
- The Golds' opponents in the Fall Classic are the legendary New York Patriots, a so-thinly-disguised version of the NY Yankees that Kowet doesn't even bother to come up with names besides Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio when describing the plaques that line the Patriots' stadium;
- and, a Golds player and his hypno-therapist (both with casino ties!) are brutally killed prior to the seventh game while enough signs point to Pallafox and/or the team's owner fixing the outcome of two games that even numbskull columnists are floating rumors of a fix in their columns!
Were The 7th Game simply implausible and outrageous it might have been a fun read. But, Kowet's style is so dry and bland – more befitting a non-fiction retelling of a post-season than a pulse-pounding thriller – that when the dull prose is occasionally livened with lines like "a groin-tingling spectrum of pulchritude", "As usual, Willie had a coven of svelte sex-witches in tow", or my favorite, "Up the plank-covered steps she went, her high heels rapping, she reflected, like ghost knuckles on a table at an eerie séance" they stick out like sore thumbs.
Naturally, The 7th Game couldn't be written today (especially since Bud Selig would probably send an army of suits to prevent the use of the names "World Series" and "St. Louis Cardinals"). So, from the standpoint of a pre-internet, pre-ESPN, pre-sports-talk-radio, pre-24-hour-news-cycle cultural time capsule it has its moments. (As I read the supposedly tension-packed description of Golds owner Walter Kelly placing a bet on his team to lose with Harry The Sleazy Casino Guy, I pondered just how long it would take that news to break on say, Sports by Brooks or Deadspin. Over or under three-and-a-half hours?) Oh yeah, I also enjoyed the fact that one of the "heroes" of the book is a freelance writer.
But if I really want to relive that era, back when baseball was still tenuously hanging on to its place as the nation's favorite sport, I'll dig out my trove of Phillies yearbooks and Larry Bowa baseball cards or blow the dust off the Strat-O-Matic box that's sitting in my attic.