BUSYTOWN, U.S.A. — When Mayor Fox of Busytown was merely Young Fox, he frequented the old-line immigrant swim clubs in the Busy Hill section of the since-industrialized Northeast Side. The story, still told in taverns with the whiff of the apocryphal but the essence of truth, is that Young Fox, debauched yet aspirational, was once set upon by a roving gang of Bulgarians. He was beaten savagely and left half-naked in the gathering cold.
Mottled with blood bruises and still hypothermic, Young Fox showed up back at the club the next day, as he had been warned not to, and strode with purpose to the same ruffians who had brutalized him the day before. “I’ll not forget what happened,” he said. “And you don’t forget this: there is more of me than there are of you.”
They laughed. “But there is only one of you,” one of them said.
“And now you understand,” Young Fox told his new enemies.
Despite an uncommon run of success in baseball’s toughest division and despite a plucky appeal that should make them civic treasures, the Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to cobble together a following among denizens of their region. So puzzling is the team’s lack of popularity that MLB commissioner Bud Selig recently scolded local fans for not more vigorously supporting their Rays.
Locked into a lease on an insipid dome; tucked away from the population centers; resigned to a customer base of retired Yankee fans not long for Shakespeare’s “mortal coil”; and pinned down at the center of the real-estate crash, the Rays may finally be forced to move elsewhere. “Elsewhere” in this instance almost certainly means Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Or, to be cynically accurate, Mayor Fox’s Busytown.
An industrious burgh thus far seemingly immune to recessionary decline, Busytown has long prided itself on being a “can-do” city. “Look around you,” thundered Mayor Fox, now in his fifth term. “You see a cradle of industry, where the dole is as foreign as a tireless work ethic is familiar. God Bless these bastard-folk.”
Mayor Fox, these high days always with monocle and top hat and often with pageant sash, is recognizable as the former doughty street kid only when his practiced accent slips up. Known among obsequious council members as “Lover of Hooch, Builder of Infrastructure,” he has lorded over Busytown for a generation. Still and yet, Mayor Fox longs for a very certain capstone: a major-league baseball team. Privately and without political decoration, he has settled on the Tampa Bay Rays. “If the Rays want a hard-working people who’ll support them in droves and through toil and triumph,” he said before taking a long pull on his breast-pocket flask, “then they’ll come to Busytown. My Busytown.”
Lowly Worm, Mayor Fox’s handler and adviser of long-standing, shares the urgency. Like Mayor Fox, Lowly Worm is a man of lesser extraction, but, also like Mayor Fox, over the years he has conquered his self-revealing tendencies. “This man has built the Busy County machine from the ground up. He’s reduced the utility-worker’s unions to smoldering embers. He’s turned the public schools into a student-run board of trade, but baseball … ” Lowly Worm trailed off. “Baseball has always eluded him.”
Yet it might not for much longer. Sources within the Mayor’s office tell the NotGraphs Investigative Reporting Investigation Team that Mayor Fox in March began back-channel discussions with team officials about a possible relocation. “You tell me what you need,” Mayor Fox told Rays principal shareholder Stuart Sternberg, “and then I’ll tell you what you really need, my boy.”
The Mayor’s discussions with Sternberg were characterized by a source as being “tense and one-sided but forward-looking. But that’s also how he [Mayor Fox] talks to his whores and neighbors.”
One Busytown agitator who hopes the Mayor doesn’t get his way for once is community activist Huckle Cat. “Where’s the money going to come from?” he asks rhetorically. “He’ll surely have to build a stadium. Another muni-bond offering? What about the opportunity cost? You can’t govern in binges like this.”
Huckle Cat leaned back in his chair. We had met in his spartan storefront office on treeless 84th Street. His mood, never pleasant, always afflicted, was even more so on this day. “We have food deserts all over this city. Street-level drug crimes are rising. Drive southbound down MLK some time and tell me if you think this city is as perfect as he says it is. There are signs of benign neglect all over the East Side. We have racial tensions. There’s a fox who flies around in a German monoplane. You’re telling me he’s not targeting minorities?”
He mashed out a cigarette in his half-eaten Hot Pocket. “His dedications are all practical, and when you think about it that’s the rawest kind of politics. Mayor Fox is a devil,” he said while fumbling for another Pall Mall unfiltered. “I want you to you print that.”
When told of Huckle Cat’s concerns, Mayor Fox, his face already rouged from drink, stifled his anger and forced a laugh that bordered on menacing. “Do you know another city in which any number of citizens drive around in pickles?” he said, not asked. “Pickles, by God! And you’re telling me I can’t have a baseball team? You’re lucky I don’t field-dress you with a monogrammed, mother-of-pearl-inlay letter-opener. The one I keep in my sock, for instance.”
The largest hurdle might have been a potential mutiny among Rays players. Back in May, Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria caught wind of the relocation rumors and went public with his displeasure. “We like it here,” Longoria said. “We’re allowed to do our jobs. We win, even if our venue is sometimes emptied like a Terry Funk-Jerry Lawler match that would surely be too wicked and serpentine for spectators. And don’t forget our media here. Do you think I want to go from the professionalism and measured excellence of a Marc Topkin to the muckraking savagery of Goldbug?”
Longoria sighed deeply, like a man who was no match for what he was about to hear. “Cats build the houses, and pigs put out the fires. Third-generation Irish cocker spaniels run the police department. All is not as it seems in Busytown. This is a prelude to something dark and terrible”
He rose from the folding chair in front of his locker. “If the move happens, I won’t go,” Longoria said, with some fearful diffidence in his voice — vanishingly rare in a hitter so clutch. “They drive pickles there.”
It wasn’t long after that Longoria came down with a curiously timed “hamstring injury.” However, as FOIA-obtained documents now prove, Sergeant Murphy, the profusely corrupt cocker-spaniel lawman of Longoria’s fears, bit him on the leg at Mayor Fox’s bidding. “Maybe next time you’ll think before you let your snout go flapping as such,” Sgt. Murphy said as he gnawed on a hunk of Longoria’s deep-most tissue.
After the attack, the machinery — Mayor Fox’s machinery, freshly oiled for war — turned and churned. Sources close to the negotiations say now it is done. After the World Series, it will be announced that the Tampa Bay Rays will open the 2013 season, in name, geography and spirit, as the Busytown Pickle Cars. If Mayor Fox’s limitless powers are any guide, they’ll be in Busytown forevermore.
You, I and all of us will forget that there was ever a team called the Tampa Bay Rays. We’ll forget because we don’t dare remember.
Sternberg resisted the overtures at first, highly placed sources told us. He even recruited a group of Tampa-St. Pete power brokers to meet with Mayor Fox and beg him, in beseechingly diplomatic terms, to spare them. They arranged a sit-down, which Mayor Fox insisted be held in dangerous adjacency to a Busytown poker room he frequented. “Home-field advantage,” he deadpanned to a quaking aide.
Mayor Fox arrived late to the meeting (“Even one’s absence should be dominating,” he likes to say). He regarded his many opponents — opponents bent on combining their powers to deprive Mayor Fox of what he’d wanted for years, but none of them as vividly adaptive as he — with a sneering eye. He offered each a punishing handshake. He drained his breast-pocket flask and remained standing, as he always does in meetings. For a time, he let the heavy silence do its work.
“Well,” he began at last. “It seems there is more of me than there are of you.”
And with that old, easy stroke of his, it was done.
(This piece originally appeared at FanGraphs.)