By John Jos. Miller
One of the things that’s the most fun about writing in the Wild Card universe, other than torturing other writers’ characters, is that sometimes you get to ride your favorite hobby horse. If not taken to excess (and really, I can’t think of any times where this has happened. YMMV), this is all to the good. Ruminations about popular music, movies, or books add those bits of authenticating detail to alternate history, particularly if they reflect off reality at interesting angles.
It was established early on in the Wild Card canon(Book 1: “Shell Games” by George R.R. Martin) that anyone who had the virus, even if they were jokers, not aces with some kind of competitive advantage, was banned by some time in the 1950s from professional sports. The prime early example of this was a joker named Mal, who ended up a bouncer at the Funhouse, a popular nightclub during Jokertown’s early days. Before the virus hit, Mal had been the eighth ranked heavyweight contender in the world. After that first Wild Card Day he became a joker with twitching tentacles dangling from his lower lip and an over-sized jaw. At first he continued his boxing career, eventually rising to rank third in the world, but even though the virus hadn’t given him an advantage, he was still banned from his chosen sport.
Undoubtedly, in the early days of the virus before definitive blood tests were available, some wild carders slipped through the cracks in the system, especially those with no or perhaps very slight visual alternations and certainly those who hadn’t yet expressed the virus.
An exception to this rule was “Slugs” Maligne, a readily apparent joker who basically looked like a five and a half foot tall snail without a shell (Card Sharks: “Till You Kissed Me” by William F. Wu). In what was still the relatively early days of the Wild Card, Yankee catchers Yogi Berra and Elston Howard were injured on consecutive days late in the 1959 season. Maligne, who had played baseball for many years on a barnstorming joker team called the Joker Giant Kings, had been in New York when that happened and the Yankees signed him to an emergency contract. He was a member of the team for twelve days. As the new second string catcher his job was largely warming up pitchers in the bullpen, but he was put in as a substitute in the second game of a doubleheader which the Yankees were winning 12-2, catching the last two innings. Some say this was done as a joke, but nevertheless Slugs became a hero to joker baseball fans everywhere and earned his line in the Baseball Encyclopedia, which is more than you can say for many aspiring ballplayers.
Though most of this post concerns baseball, because, basically, I’ve written the most about sports in the wild card universe than any other writer and baseball is the only sport that I care to write about extensively, I have mentioned football – specifically, college football — twice, both in the context of the career of Billy Ray.
If there ever was a Wild Card character who played football, it was Billy Ray. I first mentioned that he played seven man football in high school in Montana, largely because that seemed to be a pretty reasonable part of the character’s background, but also because I played it in college intramurals as a ringer on a pretty good hall team. (There weren’t enough guys living on my residential hall to field a seven man football team or most any other kind of sport team, which made me go elsewhere for my sports fixes, but this population imbalance did lead to other obvious advantages. I played running back and defensive line for a hall team from another wing of my dorm. The usual formation in seven-man has three lineman, but we only used two, myself and another guy who was nicknamed Doc Blot for reasons regarding another of his recreational habits – but I digress…) And secondly, further illustrative of Billy’s character, he broke his leg on national television in the first half of the Rose Bowl and tried to get back in the game during the second half. He played for the University of Michigan so I could nickname him “Kid Wolverine.”
Returning the post’s focus to baseball, the team I’ve followed for all of their life and practically all of mine is the New York Mets, so, naturally, when I created the parameters of baseball history for the Wild Card universe, I erased them.
I didn’t do this because I was ashamed of their early history, though God knows it’s brutal enough. I did it because I couldn’t resist the echoing allusions of an alternate reality where the Dodgers never left Brooklyn.
If there ever was a community that deserved to hang onto their team for all time, it was Brooklyn. But no. Walter O’Malley saw gold in those western hills and he tore the Dodgers from the loving bosom of their fanatical fans and shifted them to Los Angeles where he got a criminally favorable deal with the city that resulted in a) the complete destruction of Chavez Ravine, a mostly poor immigrant neighborhood which was literally condemned and razed to the ground so the city (not O’Malley) could build Dodger Stadium and acres and acres of parking lots on the freed-up land, and b)a joke involving an act that I can’t specify here that concerned the Dodger owner and the mayor’s wife which purportedly took place once a week.
How did I keep the Dodgers from moving west? Simple. I turned their owner into a puddle of goo on that first Wild Card Day in 1946. It was very satisfying.
I constructed a detailed plan of Wild Card baseball history, much too detailed to go into here. (But you can find it in the Mutant and Masterminds Wild Card World Book, published by Green Ronin, along with tons of other information about the Wild Card world.)
Here’s a few interesting random facts from this alternate universe. The Atlanta team is called the Peaches. Havana has a major league team called the Sugar Kings (More on that later.) Pete Reiser was the greatest player of the 1950’s, with the most hits and runs scored and the highest batting average in major league history. Tom Seaver pitched for the Dodgers from 1967 to 1986, winning 366 games. And Fidel Castro had a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher for several teams and was a long-time Dodger pitching coach and manager.
One of the really great things about writing in an alternative universe is that you can twist historical fact as we know it into balloon-animal shapes that also correct the injustices which cry out to be set straight, which I did in some of the above-mentioned factoids. Especially the Atlanta one.
Of those “alternative facts,” the one that has probably had the largest effect on Wild Card history is removing Fidel Castro from the political realm and giving him a career in sports. The factual basis for this twist of history is the long-persistent rumor that Castro had a tryout with the Washington Senators or maybe it was the New York Yankees, but ultimately was never signed to a contract. This is a plausible enough story, as Castro was a big supporter of Cuban baseball and had often appeared in photos in uniform, sometimes depicted screwing around on the field. It’s so plausible in fact that in 1964 a Sports Illustrated story supposedly written by then star shortstop Don Hoak recounted in great detail the time he batted against Castro.
But, alas, none of that actually ever happened. Except in the Wild Card universe, where it’s revealed (“Four Days in October” by John Jos. Miller: Deuces Down) that Castro was actually a secret deuce (unknown even to himself). The wild card gave him stronger and more flexible tendons in his elbows (And possibly elsewhere, but how would you know?) which makes his pitching career possible.
This factoid allowed us to make Cuba the domain of the Batista family from the beginning of the series down to this very day (Che led the failed Wild Card Cuban Revolution.). Currently Havana remains a lively sin city under the co-domination of the Batistas and the Gambione crime family. I’ve always wanted to write a story set there, and maybe someday we’ll have a book in which it would fit.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest pitcher who ever lived in the Wild Card universe, but was so good she never had the opportunity to toe a professional mound. Kate Brandt, known as Curveball, a good-looking girl next door type who has the telekinetic powered ability to hurl any hand-held object several hundred miles an hour, with pin-point control. (First appearing in Inside Straight in “Chosen Ones” by Carrie Vaughn). She finished in third place as a nineteen year old contestant on the first American Hero reality television series in 2008, but later on went on to leave her mark on the world as a heroic ace for the Committee.
Finally, as I’ve previously mentioned alternative history has provided me with the opportunity to give Pete Reiser his due. Reiser is probably the greatest ball player you never heard of, unless you’re a confirmed fan. In his rookie season (and, really, his only full season) as a Dodger outfielder he led the National League in runs scored, doubles, triples, batting average, slugging percentage, total bases, and that thing the kids are all taking about today, OPS. He was second in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting. He was such a feared batter that once he was walked intentionally when he was sent up to pinch hit with a broken ankle.(The Disabled List is evidently for sissies.) But his career was derailed by both World War II and a succession of injuries, many of which came from him running into walls while making impossible catches in center field. In the real world he’s a footnote. In the Wild Card universe, he’s an immortal.
I was happy to be able to make him one.