Sports Hell chapter 4: The puppet masters


College Contributor Network

It was not until Pete Rose and I were far from the Choke-Jobs that I remembered I still had the clothespin on my nose like an idiot. I took it off and threw it into the darkness.

As we walked along I kept looking for those figures we saw on the ridge of the pit for Choke-Jobs, but I couldn't see anyone. "Are we close to the Master?" I asked my guide.

"Two stops to go," said Pete Rose.

The land before us dipped again, but my guide turned and directed me toward a rising mesa to our right. The ground here rose up into a cliff face, and for a long time Pete Rose and I walked along the edge and looked down into the valley below. Of course, it wasn't long until we were gazing upon a dense, tightly packed crowd.

"Are these the sinners?" I asked.

"No, like us, this crowd is merely an audience," said Charlie Hustle. "Notice, my companion, that which they surround."

And that's when I saw that the crowd was gathered around a boxing ring. Frayed ropes surrounded a stained, worn mat. The audience reached and strained for the ring, yelling and hollering, but the ropes were just out of reach. Who was going to fight?

"Ladies and gentlemen," came a voice. "We really have a quality matchup here tonight."

A single spotlight illuminated an announcer's booth high above the ring. Inside sat one lone figure.

"Is that...John Madden?" I asked. Indeed, there was no mistaking the man. "How the heck did he end up here? Really seems like he'd be in Sports Heaven."

"You have to take a plane to Sports Heaven, naturally," said Pete Rose. "The Horse Trailer only comes here. Now he just kind of hangs out with us. Helps where he can."

"You all should be really excited for this one here," said John Madden. "Two of our most popular competitors will enter the ring. Put your hands together for Tim Donaghy and Jim Joyce!"

And from the ceiling, hanging from a series of wires, two figures descended to the ring. The crowd saw them coming and raised their hands and screamed and hissed. A couple people threw things and they hit the dangling bodies without so much as a reaction. Uh-oh. What was going to happen to these referees?

Donaghy and Joyce touched down at opposite side of the ring, and I saw that their wires were fivefold – one on each arm, each leg, and at the base of their necks. The cords ran under their respective officiating garb. Were they – were they hooked into their skin?

John Madden shifted in his seat behind the microphone. "Now, you all know the rules already. Two referees enter – only one leaves! Will it be the crooked, cheating, two-faced slimeball Tim Donaghy? Or will it be the shameful, history-altering, inadequate Jim Joyce?"

The crowd roared for their choices. Yeesh, I thought, John Madden was sorta ruthless up there.


A bell rang and Donaghy and Joyce both lurched at each other. Yeah – lurched. The cords they were hooked onto lifted and lowered, controlling their respective limbs like puppet strings. Yet, whoever was on the other end wasn't very good at manipulating a puppet, and the steps of each man were overly long and clumsy. When they came close enough, Donaghy's right arm was hauled way back behind his head and he twitchily lunged forward and socked Joyce right across the mouth.

"Ooh!" Blood shot from the umpire's teeth and splattered on the gray mat. The crowd roared its approval, and Joyce reared back and responded with a big looping hook of his own. The two disgraced referees went back and forth like a pair of punching bags – neither puppeteer relinquishing any ground while their fighters in the ring took blow after blow. Before long, both men were hanging limp from their strings, toes dragging.

After a particularly nasty hit from Joyce on Donaghy's ear, a figure in the crowd leapt into the air, waving a towel with enthusiasm. I looked closer – it was Rasheed Wallace! And hey, there was Tim Duncan watching quietly in the back (Was he smiling? I couldn't tell). Before long, I had found a small cluster of Detroit Tigers' fans, Serena Williams, and hey – thought he might be here – Mark Cuban.

I tapped Pete Rose on the shoulder. "So these guys – they all just have it out for the refs?"

Charlie Hustle made a so-so motion with his hand. "Not exactly. I mean, anyone who wants to come watch the refs beat the hell out of each other can do that, obviously, but these refs were placed here intentionally."

Over in the ring Joyce stumbled and fell back against the ropes. Someone launched a beer at him. Pete Rose went on. "Mostly it's guys like Donaghy, really. Refs who doctored games or really messed something up intentionally, but every now and then we'll see a Jim Joyce – they just blew a call, plain and simple. Can be pretty hard to forgive."

"But why not just make them fight? What's with the strings?" I asked, as Donaghy aimed a kick at Joyce's side.

"Think about it. These guys in their most convicting moments had near-total control over the outcomes of their sports. Some would argue that it's time they relinquish some – or all – of that control. Hence, the puppeteers."

I looked up to see where the ropes went, but of course, they rescinded into the darkness and I couldn't see much else above John Madden. I could only assume that there were more of those shadowy watchers form before up there, tugging the strings.

"So that might explain why, even though he didn't really do anything horrible, Joyce still has to fight?" I asked.

Pete Rose nodded. "That's exactly why. He's sort of in the same boat as your friend Bartman from the Choke-Jobs."

Donaghy's knee found Joyce's chin with a sharp crack, and the umpire's eyes shot open wide and he slumped forward like a dropped sandbag – KO. A bell rang and Donaghy himself collapsed to the mat, leaning entirely on his strings. Blood caked both men like two red masks.

The cords attached to the referees tightened and tightened until both men were being hoisted aloft again. They disappeared into the darkness amid the cheers and jeers of the ravenous crowd. Bottles and trash and even shoes were flung at the refs as high as people could throw. A lot of the debris landed in the ring, joining the streaks and smears of blood left over from the puppet battle. The red stood out in the harsh light.

I felt my shoulders go limp. I shrugged lamely.

"What is it?" Pete Rose asked. "Are you ready to move on?"

I wasn't sure what to say. "I suppose so," I said. "It's just...something about that...I guess I feel sort of detached. Not like before, I kind of...I guess it's tiring, in a way." There was silence for a while. "Is that normal?"

Pete Rose took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair and put it back on again. "Maybe. Do you mean normal as in common, or normal as in right?"

I stared down at the ring and watched the crowd mill away. I turned and walked past Charlie Hustle and he followed me as we continued forward.

I never answered him.

For a look back through the entirety of the trip through Sports Hell, check out the previous chapters below:
Sports Hell chapter 6: The end
Sports Hell chapter 5: Death row
Sports Hell chapter 4: The puppet masters
Sports Hell chapter 3: The choke jobs
Sports Hell chapter 2: The ball hogs
Sports Hell chapter 1: The bandwagoners

Tyler Daswick is a junior at Northwestern University. He is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, Indiana Jones, and writing stories about cowboys and banditos. Follow him on Twitter: @AccordingtoDazz