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Bobby Valentine

April 21, 2015

BobbyValentineMustacheGlassesDisguiseYou Are the Eyes of the World

Three

Yesterday I wore a tail for a few hours. It started in the morning when my older son, Jack, not wearing any clothes, as is his wont, walked out of the bathroom with a long strand of toilet paper hanging out of his butt. He’s a couple months shy of four.

“This is my tail,” he said. “You get a tail too, Daddy.”

“I’m not sticking anything in my butt right now,” I said.

“My tail! My tail!” Jack hollered. It had fallen out. “Mommy, stick my tail back in!”

“OK,” she said. She was dazed from being sick for the past few days. Halfway through the process, kneeling, she said, “Why am I always dealing with butts? This is my whole life now. Jack, things aren’t supposed to go up your—”

“Daddy, put a tail up your butt!”

“No more putting things up butts!”

“Mommy!”

You have to also picture throughout this exchange the high-pitched yowling of a screechy woodland ogre. This is the general conversational style of my younger son, Exley, who’s a little over ten months old.

“But, Mommy!” Jack said.

“Eeeyyaaooowl!” Exley said.

“Holy God!” I yelled.

“I’ll give everyone tails!” my wife yelled. “But not up butts! That’s it!”

She tied a rope around Jack’s waist and fastened another rope to it. She looped the belt from a bathrobe around a belt loop above my butt. Jack and I ran up and down the hall a few times with our tails flying around. The younger boy crawled after us yowling. Eventually the yowling turned to crying and I picked him up. Jack got bored without me in pursuit and took off his tail. After a lot of bucking and crying, Exley fell asleep. I eased him down into the bassinet. I noticed that I still had a tail on. I started taking it off and then I stopped. I would be walking to the beach with my family later, then to the grocery store. I’m 47 years old. I was going to do all that with a tail? Out there in society?

“Why are you wearing a tail still?” my wife asked as we walked to the beach.

It was a fair question. I looked like an idiot, surely.

I can’t really explain it. I’m losing my mind, probably? More specifically, I’m excited about my book coming out in a couple of weeks, but I’m also terrified. I don’t remember being this scared when Cardboard Gods came out. Maybe I was. All I know is I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. The process of writing a book for me is one saturated almost perpetually with doubt, but then right at the end, aided by exhaustion, the doubt abates a little and I get this feeling that what I did was OK, that I did the best I could, that I wrestled with whatever was inside me and got it down onto the page in some kind of an artistic form or whatever. This feeling goes away, and the words that were once so close to me go cold on the page, and I can’t make heads or tails of what I’ve done. So I worry that this book will be the door I’ve always worried about, the one that opens to the suggestion that even my best effort is the work of a fraud.

This is the general feeling of fatherhood, too, I’ve found: continual fakery. This is perhaps why yesterday for several hours I wore a tail. On the beach, on a playground, waiting in line to buy bread and beer and wintergreen Trident at the grocery store. Fuck it: Here I am world, the fool, the fraud. For the first time in weeks I felt great.

Which brings me to this great moment in bench-sitting. It was in June 1999. Bobby Valentine was tossed out of a game as the manager of the Mets and shortly after the expulsion reappeared on the bench in the most ludicrously flimsy disguise imaginable.

There are days when you can’t lose. When just sitting on the bench is a victory, even if on the bench you’re a fool, a fraud. Yesterday was one of these days. I sat on the bench by Lake Michigan with my son for a few minutes and watched the swift little waves bash into the shore and beyond that the wide water stretching to the horizon and felt no pain and when I got up to follow Jack to a playground my tail, just briefly, got stuck in a gap between metal slats. One little tug before I was able to go on, a grown man wearing a tail, free.

To be continued.

10423636_782189281889044_7247900153861283942_n

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Scottie Pippen

April 14, 2015

pippen benchYou Are the Eyes of the World

Two

Sitting on a bench is usually an indication that the world has said No to you, not that you have said No to the world. For a long time I believed my life story was an example of the former, not the latter. My life was out of my hands. I wanted to play, wanted to be a part of things, but it wasn’t happening. This is what I told myself. It’s probably partly true. The other part is that at some point I started saying No to the world.

You can’t say No to the world when you’re a father. Well, you can, but it will cause pain. For example, yesterday I said “fucker” to my son. Perhaps a case could be made that I said it to the room within earshot of my son, that I was just swearing at the world, not at him. However, a case could not be made that, later, I muttered “shut up” to anyone but my son. He is not yet four years old.

What does any of this have to do with Scottie Pippen? Scottie Pippen was good at what he did. He had one particularly bad moment in his career, but it doesn’t deserve to define him. I’m merely poaching that moment to talk about one of the ways in which I tend toward the bench. There are a lot of ways to the bench. Trust me, I know. I’m a benchwarmer. Scottie Pippen took one of the ways in the spring of 1994. He was for that one year, in the absence of the player Larry Bird once referred to as God, the leader of the Bulls. When a big shot needed to be taken in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, Pippen’s coach called for another player to take the shot. There were 1.8 seconds left in the game. Pippen took those 1.8 seconds off. He said No to the godless world. He quit.

What caused me yesterday to say No to the world? I guess I’d have to tell you my whole life story with more honesty than I’ve previously mustered to answer that, but the immediate situation was that my son was having trouble getting to sleep. We have this elaborate, often ineffective, ritual to try to get him to sleep, and while sometimes it works OK, lately it has gone to shit again, and everyone in the house is miserable. I coauthored the whole mess, and yet I’m brimming with resentment about it. My fuse is shorter than ever. I said “fucker” when I was lying down next to my son and he flailed his body and kicked me in the head. Later I muttered “shut up” when he started to ask me a question when I was holding him and singing and dancing. This is part of the elaborate ritual—me holding him and singing and dancing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know that however we’ve gotten to this point, to me dancing around a fairly large young boy as if he were an infant, I won’t help anything by blowing up in anger on him. But my fuse is short. In those moments I want to quit and sit down and not be a part of this anymore.

I know what it feels like to not have the play called for you. That’s how things felt for a long time in my life, and I know that my general reaction to this was to quit. To not even be a part of the action anymore. It became habitual, but it’s a habit I can’t surrender to anymore. I can’t quit now. Life no longer allows it. I’m in the game no matter what. But inside my body, my flesh, there’s that pull toward the bench. I want to sit down. I want to pout and be null and void of my own volition, so say No and watch the world from a withering remove.

To be continued.

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Bill Walton

April 7, 2015

Walton benchedYou Are the Eyes of the World

One

I am sick of worrying over every sentence, every word, and so without stopping, jamming, hoping to find pure play, I am going to write about the greatest moments in sitting on the bench in the history of the world, starting with this moment captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 and burned into my brain forever as the prototypical image of being on the outside looking in or perhaps more accurately being withdrawn from the game, being so far inside as to be removed from that which brings the most joy: connection with others.

Bill Walton dropped off the face of the earth right around the time of this cover and would not resurface for many years, for so long as to seem as if he had disappeared forever, and so for those years when he was altogether gone—actually he was an oft-injured member of the roster of the San Diego Clippers, which is one step beyond being gone—it seemed he was never going to come back. He had been to me, in his free-spirited ways and his joyous enthusiasm and in his untimely removal from the center of the action, a basketball counterpart to Mark Fidrych, who disappeared from the world at around the same time, the late 1970s, the Malaise Years, and as with Fidrych I had a yearning for him to reappear, to rise from his glum remove on the bench and be what he once was.

Fidrych never returned. That’s one difference between the two. The other is that Walton was when healthy among the greatest to ever play his sport, something that could never be claimed for Fidrych, despite his inarguably great rookie season (he deserved the 1976 Cy Young Award). The more complex Walton was not as magnetically likable as Fidrych, but like Fidrych Walton’s magnetism was based in joy. When his faulty body let him he had a volcanic joy for the game he loved, and he channeled that joy into connection with his teammates. Fidrych’s similar compulsion bubbled up outside the crux of the more solitary demands of his game, most notably when he bounded from the mound to shake the hand of a teammate who’d made a nice play; conversely, Walton’s happy need to share the love was woven into the fabric of his game. His greatest gift as an athlete—besides being a nimble, powerful giant—was vision, a gift he used to become the player generally considered to have been the greatest among all centers in setting up a teammate to score.

But how would I even know this? I never once saw him play during his time at UCLA or with the Trailblazers. His talents were entirely word-based and imaginary to me, but perhaps for that reason they were more intimately known to me. I saw him in my mind grabbing a rebound and in that very instant, airborne, locating a streaking teammate far upcourt and hitting him in stride with the perfect court-traversing outlet pass. I saw him exulting, fist raised, as his teammate scored the open lay-up that Walton alone had seen as a possibility.

And so to see this beauty disappear into the slumping misery of one on the bench was rough. Add to this that Walton’s disappearance from the world mirrored not only Mark Fidrych’s but also my own. I’d been a happy kid, laughing, reveling in the back-to-the-land sprawl and mess and joy-dreams of my parents—dreams shared by Walton above all among athletes of his time—but as the wide 1970s narrowed to a new, more constricted decade I edged into an adolescence that looked pretty much exactly—thematically speaking—like this picture of Walton on the bench. I was not connected anymore somehow. I was benched.

To be continued.

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Mario Mendoza

January 24, 2015

Mario MendozaImmortality

5.

The greatest sages from ancient times
Have not shown us life immortal.
What is born must die . . .
-Han Shan

The Chinese poet Han Shan lived over a thousand years ago. No one knows for sure exactly when. He shacked up in the mountains, maybe with a fellow hermit who accompanied him on periodic giggly visits to town, and wrote his poems on rocks, maybe. That’s the lore anyway—if there ever were poems of his on rocks time has smoothed away the words or perhaps turned the rocks themselves to dust. I first read about Han Shan in Dharma Bums, and I hoped to follow in Jack Kerouac’s and Gary Snyder’s footsteps as they followed in the footsteps of Han Shan. I wanted to wade off into some lofty world of mist and visions. I don’t know what my days have ended up amounting to. I don’t carve my poems in rocks or write poems of any kind anymore. Yesterday I worked a long day in a cubicle and then, back at home, taped Buzz Lightyear’s foot back onto his leg. It had fallen off when my son was playing with his action figure from Toy Story. I was able to make it so the toy could still stand up. Work hadn’t exactly made me feel like I was swatting game-winning home runs, so I counted the wobbly new stability of the mass-produced plastic offering as a victory.

***

Mario Mendoza, utility man—everyone knows he’s the man behind the Mendoza Line, right? But he had nothing to do with its creation: it was the doing of teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, cackling over Mendoza’s consistent presence at the bottom of the Sunday newspaper batting average lists, and the doing of George Brett, who heard the term from Paciorek, and Chris Berman, who heard it from Brett and started weaving it into his SportsCenter spiels. We have no power to shape the world; it just takes shape. We have no power to make anything last. Hank Greenberg, the immortal at the beginning of this meditation that I’m now calling to a halt, once racked up 103 RBI by the all-star break. This is two more RBI than Mario Mendoza got in his entire career. And yet there’s a chance the Mendoza Line will outlast Greenberg. Or at any rate it’s the same. Language, plaques: everything in one way or another is a random snaring of language bound to disassemble.

***

I’m rereading Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers. He died a few days ago. I heard an old radio interview with him a day or two after he passed away, and he was talking about the time he and his friends in the Merry Pranksters met the Beats. He said Jack Kerouac was bitter that Neal Cassady, now the speed-addled bus driver of the Merry Prankster’s Furthur bus, was no longer at Kerouac’s side but with this younger crowd. Kerouac, Stone observed, was just generally bitter. Bitter and jealous. He was still handsome at that point, Stone said, but within a year or so his disease, alcoholism, would wreck his fine facial structure, puffing it into a bulbous mess, an attack on the charismatic youthful myth of the man even more severe somehow than when the next stage of his ravaging illness took hold and ended his life. Anyway, it’s a great novel, Dog Soldiers, I mean. In it the promise of the sixties has gone the way of Jack Kerouac’s good looks—everything’s in bitter, smoldering wreckage. The last great novel I’d read before picking up Dog Soldiers again was Jonathan Miles’s 2014 book Want Not, which features a subplot about a group of intellectuals and engineers and specialists from various fields coming together in a project devoted to communicating the danger of toxic waste to future civilizations. The problem the group faces is that toxic waste will, in the estimation of scientists and linguists, outlast any current language. Languages deteriorate and eventually vanish altogether: this seems to be an unavoidable universal rule. Write your words into the internet ether or carve them into rocks and it’s the same. They’ll erode into nothing. No one will understand whatever it was you were trying to say. The linguists in Want Not (whose thoughts reflect linguistic theory that Jonathan Miles studied in researching the book) are certain that even the most basic pictographs will be unable to keep people 10,000 years in the future from blundering past all of our signage and into a murderous cache of our toxic aftermath.

***

For a little while when I was a young man I had a job on the graveyard shift loading trucks at the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. I was living in the East Village, miles from the job, but for some reason I used to walk to work, several miles in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened to me until one night when I was crossing a street on Third Avenue a few blocks south of 42nd Street. It was around two in the morning and there weren’t any other pedestrians around. I was struck by a car. The driver was hurrying to make a left turn before the yellow light changed to red and he didn’t see me crossing with the light. He braked when he saw me but not in time to avoid impact. I was scooped up onto the hood and thrown to the pavement.

The driver opened the door of his car and got one foot out. He was a doughy young Hispanic guy. He was scared.

“Are you OK?” the driver said.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said. You will always want this to be the truth. Amazingly, it wasn’t that far from the truth. I got to my feet.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I continued on to work. My jeans had a rip in them and were slightly bloody. I performed a version of the task that I’ll be performing my whole life in one way or another, job after job, if I’m lucky enough to stay employed. Boxes came down the conveyer belt, and I sorted them by address into the proper shelves in one of four trucks in my station. During my fifteen minute break I read Dante. I don’t know which part of the Divine Comedy I was on. It doesn’t matter—I only remember one thing from the whole trilogy, which I read in its entirety in fifteen minute breaks from loading trucks: paradise is frightening, stripped of fallible humanity and mistakes. Paradise is lifeless.

***

Mario Mendoza played his twelve final major league games the year this card came out, 1982, and got his last seventeen at-bats, connecting for just two hits. He was released in July with a .118 average for the year, the farthest he’d ever landed below “his” line—a .200 batting average—at a season’s end. His career average fixed itself quite clearly above the Mendoza Line at .215, which is somehow more dispiriting than if he’d somehow lasted as long as he did—nearly a decade—with an average below his own line. I’ve spent my life marveling at shit like the Mendoza Line. That to me is the beautiful stuff, a way to capture the ineffable mediocrity of most of this short rude gift we’re given, this life.

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Terry Francona

January 18, 2015

Terry FranconaImmortality

4.

What do you do when life reveals itself as the opposite of immortality? The dream of living forever falls away and you’re left in the mortal position shown here. A former number 1 draft pick edging into the marginal wanderings of the journeyman lunges with his front foot but holds his hands back. Is it just me or does he seemed to be fooled, guessing again? He might watch the pitch go by, perhaps for a mocking strike, or he might flick at it with his wrists, no power, no significant connection ensuing, no sweet momentary ceasing of the guessing and second-guessing of the little grasping mind, the babble inhabiting our finite days.

Some mirages of promise shimmer on the back of this card, a .321 batting average in one partial season, a .346 mark in another. At the bottom, just below the respectable .286 lifetime average and the contrastingly tepid power numbers (just 9 home runs in over a thousand at-bats, a .367 slugging percentage), there’s one line of text in the place where career highlights might have gone: “Terry and his wife are the parents of one son.”

My own life turned three and a half years ago with the birth of my first son. This is the spot where you might expect to hear a testimonial about how my life has turned for the better with his arrival and the arrival of his brother three years later, how their presence has imbued my days with more meaning and purpose. This is true, certainly, but there’s also this: since I became a parent I’ve lost any touch I ever had at anything. You name it: friendship, civility, washing the dishes. The cupboard is full of plates smeared with soap and bits of food. On my desk is a list of people to thank that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what I was supposed to thank them for, and another list of writing ideas that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what each list entry means.

My days? I rush, fume, mope, guess, worry, lunge, repeat. More generally, I imagine my imperfections filtering down to my kids. It’s inevitable, their pure swing sure to be marred in my care. I also see that I’m here for them and that at some point I won’t be. When I wasn’t here for anyone in particular, it was easier to imagine this just sort of continuing the way it always had indefinitely, immortality some kind of endless narrative digression.

For a long time, during my former life of unending digression, I often dreamed of statues. Win the World Series, I said, just once. Just win it once and there will be statues in celebration forever. I don’t know why this held such an appeal for me. My life of perpetual digression was not without suffering, and I suppose dreaming of some permanent victory served as a kind of salve.

It happened. The journeyman shown here led the way, and it was all I could have ever asked for, but then life went on. He won another World Series, but somehow even that helped break the spell of immortality, or contributed to it breaking, along with his departure after a historically severe collapse the year my first son arrived. Now he’s elsewhere, a mortal, a guy on my list to thank if I ever get around to it.

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Tim Raines

January 12, 2015

Tim RainesImmortality

3.

We’re all dreaming. Some dream with numbers, others with stories, others still with the belief in some kind of unassailable purity that never existed. I dream with whatever joys and wants and traumas pounded my psyche into its shape in my childhood. I dream with baseball cards.

That’s how baseball first came to me, or at least the part of baseball that served as the fantastical counterpart to the baseball I flung my imperfect self into on little league fields and the schoolyard and my rutted dirt driveway. Certain dreams that came to me through the cards were stronger than others, making me feel like I was touching the opposite of my transitory halting world. Some cards sang. Here was greatness advancing unashamed.

The photo on the front of this card feeds into a dream of greatness, capturing a coiled, bristling image of possibilities and power. Maybe the figure shown has just hit a ball that will be run down by an outfielder, as his eyes seem to be suggesting that the ball he’s just struck is arcing high into the sky. But his body has no surrender in it, not yet, and so it still seems as if the ball might hit a gap or even reach an outfield wall. Maybe it will even hit a seam or a bolt in the wall and ricochet acutely, opening the moment to its outer limits, every single base on the diamond, everything, in reach of this runner.

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Craig Biggio

January 5, 2015

Craig BiggioImmortality

2.

What if, shortly after this photograph was taken, a baserunner careened into Craig Biggio in the manner in which Pete Rose, in an All-Star Game, separated Ray Fosse’s shoulder and Fosse from his destiny? Fosse was one of the most promising catchers in the league up to the moment of the injurious collision; afterward, he was never the same.

Biggio never relied on luck—no one verging on baseball immortality ever could—but who is beyond the reach of luck? I’m the farthest thing from a daredevil or from someone like Biggio who bravely put himself in the path of hardship and pain (after starting out as a collision-inviting catcher he went on to become the all-time leader in being hit by pitches), but even in my timid wanderings I’ve brushed up against the other side of the random gift of life enough times to sense that other side as a presence. One day as a child when I was riding my bike to the general store to buy baseball cards, I almost got hit by a semi. There were other close calls to follow over the years. I almost got mauled by a snowplow, almost rammed into an oncoming vehicle while daydreaming at the wheel, fell off a mountain bike and bounced for several moments down a steep rocky ridge. That last moment ended with me as something like a lawn-sprinkler spraying blood, and I was in pain for weeks, but somehow nothing was broken.

“You are beautiful,” I told everyone I came into contact with for a couple of days. “I love you,” I told everyone. Soon enough the feeling diminished. I went back to the usual, hiding, lying, worrying.

Such is my life. Was I meant for any other than the one I’m living? Was there some true path I missed? Some decision I should have made that I didn’t? Is there ever anything but pure dumb luck?

This morning my younger son, who’s seven months old, woke up at four a.m. I took him out into the living room so that my wife could get a little sleep. He fell back asleep on my chest as I sat in the recliner. I could feel his weight, his breath coming in and out.

You are beautiful, I was thinking. I love you.

Immortality is always one thin moment away, and it will have nothing to do with who we think we are.

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