Heavenly Bodies In the spirit of this issue, we check up on the late greats as they play an eternal overtime

July 01, 2001

God is still getting an earful tonight, 26 years after Casey
Stengel died. Roger Maris, in a nod to his number, is literally
living on Cloud 9, and Wilt Chamberlain--his head wreathed in a
terry-cloth halo--is able at last to answer the question, "How's
the weather up there?"

St. Peter is not the greeter at the Pearly Gates--it's Toots Shor
in a tux--and the gates are mere swinging saloon doors. Nobody
inside is playing a harp, but Mickey Mantle is drinking a Harp,
and when Fred Astaire sings in the lounge, "Heaven, I'm in
heaven...." he isn't kidding.

"Where are they now?" you wonder of your heroes. Well, so many of
them are here that it's almost like the ESPYs, except this show
runs for all eternity, and the ESPYs only seem that way. Where
are they now? Where to begin? Babe Ruth is at his usual table,
and he couldn't be happier, because the Sultan of Swat scant
moments ago was finally given his wings. Not angel wings, fool:
buffalo wings. Everyone knows Ruth was no angel, but there are
myriad other ways to get a table here, and bringing joy to
millions is one of them. So the Bambino long ago earned his
wings, to say nothing of his jalapeno poppers. The food in this
joint is to die for.

Steaks that are out of this world, nachos that are not of this
Earth, mozzarella sticks that are simply divine. Go ahead:
Cholesterol can't kill you twice. But Satchel Paige, who
maintains a healthy deathstyle, still disdains fried foods that
"angry up the blood." So he sits at his booth with Cool Papa
Bell, casually enjoying a Cobb salad. (Now you know, too, what's
become of Ty Cobb.)

We're kidding, of course, about Cobb. The truth is, nearly
anyone can get into this place, but be warned: For some it's
paradise, for others purgatory. Here, the first shall be last
and the last shall be first. Throneberry, party of nine, your
table is ready. We're terribly sorry, Mr. Durocher, but nice
guys are seated first. Perhaps you'd like to wait in the bar.

There's nothing wrong with the bar, mind you, or the barkeep, Al
McGuire. He's still careful to leap feetfirst over any bar when
breaking up a fight. It's a lesson he learned in his father's
saloon and put to good use only a second ago when Billy Martin
punched out Woody Hayes for bogarting his beer nuts. This happens
every night here, Al, Billy and Woody gleefully mixing it up.
They wouldn't miss this for the world. They're having the time of
their afterlives.

See, all of life is 6 to 5 against, but the afterlife is a sure
thing, a deadbolt lock. Or so says the bar's resident Runyon,
Damon Runyon himself, who, liking the odds here, spends most of
his time in the backroom sports book, playing the ponies. Or
rather, playing the people. Because on Earth we cheer wildly for
dwarves on horseback. Up here, though, they cheer wildly for
horses on dwarfback. It's a small karmic correction, giving the
animal the whip. So the winner in the eighth race today is a
small, blinkered Peruvian man whose jockey is named Seabiscuit.
Sure, the horse looks ridiculous riding his mount like a circus
bear on a tricycle, but the system somehow seems fairer, more
appropriate.

This backroom, for instance, is done up in a knotty pine-lodge
look, and mounted on the walls are the taxidermied, plaid-capped
heads of hunters. Beneath them, a squat Italian-American bettor
with a big gappy grin tears a rare losing ticket in two. "Winning
isn't everything," Vince Lombardi says with a shrug, and these
days he actually believes it. The dearly departed, it seems, have
seen the light. (Literally so, in most of their cases.)

Yet the dead would never tell you how to live. For one thing, it
would be presumptuous, and all the sportsmen up here have,
astonishingly, abandoned their egos. (A sign above the bar reads
ONLY GABRIEL IS ALLOWED TO BLOW HIS OWN HORN.) Second, there's no
single path to enlightenment, up here or on Earth: Ben Hogan, for
instance, still seeks wisdom in the bottom of a range bucket, and
he frequently finds it there. (And, yes, he is the source of
golf-ball-sized hail.)

It may not be your idea of eternal bliss, this joint, but the
regulars here think it's heaven. "Where are they now?" you
wonder. Well, Willie Stargell's on Cloud 8. Dick Howser's on
Cloud 10. Simply look up in the night sky to locate the Big
Dipper. Ask him, "How's the weather up there?" Bet he tells you
it's beautiful.

B/W ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)