Smokey Joe and the Time Bandit: Chapter 1

BOSTON, MA - MAY 21: Fans wait for the gates to open before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs on May 21, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Tonight the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox are wearing replica uniforms from 1918. Before this series, the two teams haven't played at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I was taking a tour of Fenway Park, just before the Park’s centennial when I met the curious stranger who told me this impossible and incredible tale I now recount for you. I found myself chatting with him as we walked through the park, because we both tended to lag behind the main group. As we slipped back from the tour, this strange character occasionally narrated an entirely different and more fascinating history of the park. His tale may have been addressed to himself or to me or maybe to the empty park itself. I could not tell, at that time, if the events that he described actually happened or not, but now that I have come to know Ryan O’Malley and heard his strange story in full, I believe it all, every last word.

At that point, however, I stuck with O’Malley primarily because he was a complete curiosity. He had the outward appearance of a Brooklyn hipster: the ironic Mark Twain mustache and a grey fedora, but, being in his late thirties, he was a bit old for that meme and he did not carry himself in a way that made his old-timey look seem like cultural parody. He also spoke with a distinct rhythm of language that recalled some other time and place, when sportswriters puffed large black cigars and pounded out colorful game summaries on suitcase typewriters. His language made his non sequiturs all the more captivating. It was as if he was rattling off quotes from Hugh Fullerton or Ring Lardner, especially since nearly all of his anecdotes seemed to revolve around the Boston Red Sox championship season of 1912, Fenway’s inaugural year.

The tour emerged out of the Park’s dark guts and into the bright sunlight, leaving me and my new friend blinking as we walked up the ramp into the box seats behind home plate. The site of the beautifully manicured field stretched out before use, leading to the towering Green Monster, complete with rows of expensive seating lining its upper reaches. After our retinas had fully adjusted and sufficiently soaked up the majesty of the scene before us, I turned to my companion and said, "Remember when there was just a net up there?" pointing to the Monster seats.

He smiled knowingly and drifted off into some reverie of his own. As he looked out across the outfield, imagining some long-past event, he spoke to no one in particular. "There used to be a large hill leading up to the wall, before it was green, before the net. They called it Duffy’s Cliff." This piqued my interest. I had heard of Duffy’s Cliff before, but it was far from the first thing that entered my mind when staring out at the Monster. It was not so much the statement, but the wistful tone in the stranger’s voice, that drew me in. He seemed sorry to look out at the Red Sox’ home field and not see the fifteen-foot slope rising up to meet the wall out in left. He added, "Lewis was the only man who could play the slope correctly," he continued, "not from the outset of course, but he learned. He was the only one…"

The odd fellow trailed off, failing to finish whatever bizarre thought was rattling around in his brain. He seemed sullen and looked about the Park in a more pointed manner, confused and even a touch heartbroken.

For the remainder of our tour around Fenway, O’Malley was quiet, taking in bits of history and occasionally stopping at some seemingly random place and getting lost in his own thought. After one such mental excursion, he turned to me, startled by the realization that other humans did, in fact, exist and that one was standing next to him, decidedly less fascinated by the fourth row seat that so mesmerized him. He asked a question that seemed impossibly unrelated to just about everything.

"Do you know much about the shape of the universe?" he asked. I told him I didn’t, and joked that it didn’t come up much in the course of writing about sports and pop culture.

"So, you’re a writer, eh?" he asked with a smirk.

"Yes," said, "Sort of, I write for magazines and websites. I’m not like Stephen King or anything."

He chuckled and nodded a tacit approval of some kind. "I was a writer once," he told me. "A baseball writer actually. I could tell you a story, to be sure." He left it at that and walked back through the seats. Ahead, our tour guide was gesturing in the default imitation of Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series home run as he pointed up at the foul pole.

As we left FenwayPark, O’Malley gazed with wonder at the scene on Yawkey Way. It was off-season, and the street was free of the hundreds of vendors and fans that would normally be there, but that did not matter to him. He looked out at the bars and souvenir shops and shook his head, as if he had gone down the wrong street and just now realized it. We walked across the street and looked back at the oldest piece of the majestic ballpark, the original façade at Gate A. Our tour guide had informed us that the small red brick section of the Park was the only piece that was original to 1912. Ryan O’Malley stared up at the faded lettering that reads "FenwayPark" as if he were a devout Catholic looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, awestruck at seeing the outstretched hand of God. He even removed his grey fedora in a mechanical act of reverence.

"It’s still the same," he mused, once again completely oblivious to my presence.

When his solemn prayer had ended, I offered to buy him a drink. He may be completely mad, I thought, but I was incredibly interested in his particular madness and hoped that a beer or two might help him to open up. As luck would have it, we were both staying at the same hotel, so we walked across the Commons and headed up Boylston Street, past the Fens and Copley Square, towards Back Bay.

O’Malley was smoking a large and highly potent cigar. The smoke was overpowering and I started to wonder if this whole adventure was misguided. However, it was not far to the hotel and as I was headed in that direction, I had to stick with him. When we reached the hotel, O’Malley entered the bar cigar in hand, causing the staff to react as if a man enrobed in flames had just casually strolled into the building. The audacity of a man entering a bar with a cigar seemed to destroy everyone’s ability to form coherent sentences. The effect was a cacophony of objections that did not provide my companion with any clear idea of the nature of his transgression. He looked around him for the cause of their ire until finally, mercifully the manager reached him and managed to remind him that smoking was strictly banned virtually any place with a roof and had been for quite some time. I distanced myself from him a bit while he was being berated by the staff, but seeing the baffled look on his face as he suddenly went from a patron to a social pariah inspired a wave of sympathy. He handled the whole incident with the apologetic manner of a man who has found himself in a foreign land where the most thoughtless of routine actions was an offense beyond comprehension. If my interest in this strange figure had momentarily wavered, this was enough to bring it back full force. When he finally returned sans cigar, I guided him to the far corner of the bar and laid down my credit card.

I ordered a beer and Ryan ordered a bourbon, neat. He drank it down as soon as it arrived and ordered a second. After a generous sip of this second drink, he leaned in conspiratorially and asked me, "are you familiar with the concept of spontaneous temporal displacement, or STD?" I restrained the urge to laugh at the acronym "STD."

"No," I told him. "I’m not familiar with that term."

"Neither was I," he declared to the glass of bourbon. He was lost again, so I prompted him.

"So could you explain this spontaneous . . ."

". . . Temporal displacement." He mercifully completed. "Well, most people think that the universe is either some type of infinite plane, extending forever in all directions, or some type of loop, but that’s not quite it," he said. "I have gone to great lengths to understand that shape and consulted some of the greatest minds alive today, and they all seem to agree that it is a far more complex form entirely."

"So, you’re a physicist?" I asked.

"No, hardly," he said, "but this question has become very important to me for reasons that I expect will soon become obvious. That is why I’m here; I have to meet with a few people at MIT about this issue and my, um, affliction. Anyway, the important thing is the shape of space and time, which I have come to understand is most easily understood as a vast, three-dimensional spirograph drawn by a very drunk artist. As such, it has many complicated and disorderly intersections. Normally, this doesn’t matter, but once in a while, a person can slip onto the wrong line, or more accurately, into the wrong dimension—spontaneously and without warning. This is what happened to me. . . ."

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