I’m feeling the need for some levity right about now, and inspired by the incredible pitching and hitting performance of the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, known as “Thor,” I reached back into my writing class portfolio for this piece. Written in response to a prompt to translate a myth or legend into modern times, it owes more than a little debt to George Plimpton’s great Sports Illustrated April Fool’s story, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, about a fictional Met pitcher. It still makes me laugh when I read it. And what better song to pair it with, than Led Zeppelin’s jackhammer blast of Viking imagery, “Immigrant Song?”
Although I had been around the game my whole life, for 40 years I only dreamt about a night like this. And there I was, finally, sitting in the visiting dugout in the ninth inning of game 7 of the World Series. Of course, in my dreams, my team was winning, but on this cool October night, we were losing by a run, and down to our last out. The only things that kept me from total despair were Bobby Ortega on second, dancing off the base, hoping for a chance to score, and who was coming to bat. Throughout what was, maybe, the oddest baseball season ever, the strangest rookie that I ever saw had regularly saved our asses, and in the process set new records for home runs and doubles.
What made him so strange? That is kind of a long saga, and it starts back in spring training. I’ll try to keep it short, since much of it has already been in the papers and on TV.
I’ve been a coach in the Twins organization for years, but this was my first year as bullpen coach for the big league team. It was the start of spring training, the early Florida morning was still cool, and the grass was covered with dew. I was warming up some of the younger pitchers on one of the outer fields, when I saw him for the first time, striding confidently across the outfield, his long red hair flowing behind him. As he approached, with Billy Cooper, the assistant GM, I could see that he was a big fella—maybe 6’ 4” and built like a tight end, with a thick red beard. He was carrying what looked like a huge golden hammer under one arm, and a bizarre batting helmet under the other—it was silver and appeared to have wings.
I’d seen maybe hundreds of musclebound kids come through training camps over the years, and most of them went right back to where they came—the curveball and 90 plus mph pitches are great equalizers. I figured that he was another one, a long haired kid who would try out, and, if he was lucky, get a chance in the low minors for a couple years before returning home with a bag full of t-shirts and some great stories.
Coop brought him over to me and said, “Jack, this fella is Thor, and Dave says that we should let him take a few hacks, and see if he’s got anything.”
I motioned toward the plate and said, “Thor. OK. Go ahead—grab a bat, put on a helmet and settle in.” He looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“Uh, Thor doesn’t speak English, only, Norwegian, or Swedish, or something,” Coop explained.
I pointed to home and mimed swinging a bat. Thor nodded and strode toward the plate. In the on deck circle, he put on his silver helmet, wings and all, and a pair of what looked like iron batting gloves. He loosened up with the hammer, swinging it around. I remember Willie Stargell used to use a sledgehammer to loosen up, but I hadn’t seen that since like the 70’s. But as he swung that baby around, I saw sparks and flashes coming out of the hammer. I shook my head and turned to Coop.
“Where’d this kid play before?” I asked.
Coop shrugged. He was a young guy, one of those new statheads who thought that baseball could be reduced to numbers on a computer, and he didn’t have much faith in the old methods of having scouts evaluate talent by actually watching it. “There are no records of him in any organized league. But our European scouts saw him using that crazy ass hammer of his to hit rocks in some field in Norway, or Sweden. Apparently, they gave him a bat, and he was hitting the ball farther than anyone they had ever seen. The owner figured that with all the squareheads in Minnesota, he’d be a natural draw.”
So, I sent one a the kid pitchers in to face him, and damned if he didn’t hit every freakin’ ball a country mile. I called over to the big league field and had them send over Alfredo Gonzalez, the craftiest pitcher we had, and the big fella actually missed a few of his crazier breaking balls, but he mashed almost everything else. I thought that maybe we were on to something.
Thor kept it up through spring training, and soon the press was hyping him more than any rookie I could remember. They loved him—he was tall, handsome, mysterious, talented and had no last name. Now, Thor couldn’t field worth a damn, but we played him at DH, and he hit the ball hard, and far. He would loosen up with that golden hammer—which was so damn heavy none of the other players could lift it, and it took all of the bat boys to drag it off the field at the end of the game—grab a massive bat and whack the ball.
You know, he forced a rule change after his very first at bat in an exhibition game. When he came to the plate with that silver helmet with the wings, the ump refused to let him bat. Jimmy O’Hara, our manager, came running outta the dugout with a rule book, which only said that a player had to wear a protective helmet with two flaps—and Thor’s complied. Didn’t matter—the ump tossed him after he refused to put on one of the regular ones, pointing out that Rule 1.11 required all uniforms to be identical. By the very next day, baseball changed Rule 1.16 to state that, and I quote, “helmets may not contain dangerous protuberances including, but not limited to, wings, horns or spikes.”
When we told Thor about the rule change, through his new interpreter, Magnus Markusson, Thor raged. But Satch, our equipment guy, spray painted all of our helmets silver, and stenciled wings on them. Thor accepted the compromise, and began to set the league on fire. Our fans liked the new look, especially when we got off to a fast start, and began calling us the “Twings.”
It was during the All Star break, when Thor was selected as the only rookie starter—and why not, with nearly 45 homers and god knows how many doubles, and a batting average of .625—that it really got weird. Thor was coming into the hotel and was confronted by a reporter from the Aftonbladet, which apparently is a big deal paper in Sweden, or maybe Norway. She asked him how he was able to hit so well, and he declared, “I am Thor of Asgard, the god of thunder, the strongest of the gods. Mere mortals are helpless before me and my hammer, Mjollnir.” That was the first time that he had referred to himself in public as a god. Which led to all sorts a problems with the churches, who started to denounce Thor, and there were demonstrations outside of the stadiums where we played.
But as long as we were winning—and we kept winning—and as long as Thor kept hitting—and he certainly did—we played to packed houses. And Jimmy was able to convince Thor to keep a lid on any smiting of his enemies, although Jimmy did have to keep Thor out of the lineup in our interleague series against the Giants, because, as Magnus told us, Thor battled giants to protect Asgard, his home, and he had trouble keeping his legendary temper under control when they were around.
The other teams tried to compete with us. You started seeing general managers walking around with copies of Bullfinch’s Mythology and sending top scouts to Europe for the first time. In late July, the Yankees signed a Greek kid named Hermes to be a pinch runner, and the race was on to find other so called immortals for the playoff run. The Red Sox signed another Greek named Poseidon to pitch for them in August, and the Dodgers found a fast Italian guy named Mercury. The Mets signed the Egyptian pitcher Amon-Re, but he never panned out, and was released.
You probably already know that we stormed through the season and the playoffs and were in the Series against the Cardinals. Despite the fact that they lacked a single player from any of the ancient pantheons, the Cards were tough. But we were up 3 games to 2, and looking like we were going to win it all. What we didn’t know was that Cards’ crafty manager, Stan Perrelli, had something up his sleeve. Stan musta been reading up on Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, because during the third inning, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, Stan unleashed an enormous serpent from the home dugout. Thor saw it, yelled “Damn you Jormungand, son of Loki and Angrboda, I will destroy you,” grabbed his mighty hammer Mjollnir and ran across the diamond shooting lightning bolts toward the Cards’ dugout. Luckily, it was not yet time for Ragnorok, the end of gods and men, because the damned serpent withdrew into the home clubhouse, and Thor was restrained by about 70 security guards before he could hurl Mjollnir at the enormous snake.
Of course, he was ejected from the game, and we never recovered, setting up the decisive Game 7. Luckily for us, the Commissioner’s office decided that unleashing an evil serpent who was the opposing team’s star’s mortal enemy during a game was unsportsmanlike behavior, and the teams agreed to allow Stan to manage and to allow Thor to play in the game. I hafta guess that the TV ratings had something to do with it, but I ain’t complaining.
So there we were. Game 7. Two out, bottom of the ninth, man on second, and Thor confidently stepping into the batters box. The stadium’s big screen showed Odin and Jord, Thor’s parents, sitting in a field level box with Thor’s beautiful but mysterious blond wife, Sif, apparently oblivious to the cold, as would be expected of Norse deities.
Ramirez delivered and Thor swung his mighty bat. He connected, and the ball started to fly skyward, higher than any of us had ever seen. It kept rising. Suddenly the sky was filled with bolts of lightning and the roar of the crowd was overpowered by massive booms of thunder. Thor circled the bases in a trot. Our dugout emptied as Ortega crossed the plate with the tying run. We mobbed him, and waited for Thor to round third and trot home. After he stepped on the plate, we all jumped on top of him. However, he did not fall to the ground. Instead, he shook us off, walked briskly to pick up the hammer and pointed it heavenward. The crowd became silent as a golden chariot, pulled by two goats—yes, goats—appeared between the mound and home. I think every eye in the stadium watched Thor climb aboard. Sif, Odin and Jord flew out of the stands and landed in the chariot behind Thor, which rose above the field and out of the stadium toward the clouds.
They never found the ball.