Jim ColbornApril 21, 2008
What’s your story? This seems like something a woman might have said to me at some point in my life, a sort of rhetorical question intended to serve as a flat palm in my chest, pushing me away, backing me off. Why are you so weird? Why are you so desperate? God, why are you the way you are?
But I can’t really think of any instance where these actual words were said to me, except for once when the question was posed by a teammate on a hastily thrown together ultimate frisbee tournament team. We had gone from Brooklyn up to some fields on a military base in Massachusetts to play a bunch of games, and actually we ended up getting brutally annihilated in all of them, each loss worse than the one before it because we were short-handed, disorganized, and running ourselves into exhaustion. I had had misgivings about going to the tournament because I wasn’t in great shape and hadn’t been playing much ultimate for a while, and as it turned out I should have listened to those misgivings. I was the worst player on the team that weekend, and by the end of the first day I could barely move. I was lying on the bed in one of the hotel rooms we’d rented. For a while a bunch of guys were hanging out there, then I guess some of them went to get food. I was unable to move and stayed.
One other guy stayed, too, sitting in a chair by the television, and after chattering for a while he asked me the question.
“So what’s your story?” he said.
I didn’t understand. The question wasn’t asked in a hand-in-chest, “what’s your problem” kind of way, but sincerely, as if he wanted to know, so I thought he was inquiring curiously about my unusually aimless existence. (All of the guys on the team but me had professional careers of one sort or another.) I started muttering something, but before I could get many words out he blurted his own answer for me.
“Just hanging out, huh?” he said.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, not really sure what he meant by either the words themselves or the dismissive abruptness with which he’d said them.
He was an intense fellow. I remember once, during a pickup game in Prospect Park, some guy’s kite had plummeted from the sky and hit him in the head. He snatched up the kite and stormed toward its owner, and he probably would have jammed that classic symbol of peaceful lazy summer days down the kite owner’s throat had both teams not intervened to stop him. Anyway, he stomped in a similarly intense way from the “what’s your story” question to other matters, burying it, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized he was asking if I, like he, was gay.
The second day of the tournament went even worse than the first. At one point during one of our second-day defeats a teammate yelled at me for failing to run down a fluttering pass. I still have fantasies of feeding that guy to sharks or dropping a piano on him. He was a graduate of the hippie college Hampshire and knew how to fix the engine of his car and he didn’t even know me except to yell at me. Who the fuck are you to yell at me? I wanted to ask. I never did. I also thought, Who needs this? I was in my late twenties by then and certainly had no desire to be yelled at by anyone, especially able, resourceful, self-reliant Hampshire engine-fixing fucks. God how I hate that guy. Had we been somewhere where I could get home on my own I would have walked off the field right then, but quitting in that situation was problematic. I could have stormed off, but I would have had to come back and get a ride from one of the teammates I’d abandoned. So I stuck it out, feeling physically and mentally miserable.
At the end, I got a ride back to Brooklyn with the intense gay guy because he was leaving right away while the guys I’d ridden to the tournament with were staying to watch the tournament championship game. During the ride I found myself talking about girls a lot. Girls I’d dated, relationships I’d had. Girls, girls, girls! Did I mention girls? I sounded like an idiot, but I couldn’t help myself. By then I’d realized the nature of my teammate’s question the day before and I guess I wanted to convince him—and more importantly, myself—that I was, as the asinine saying goes, “all man.”
So that’s my story, or part of it anyway. I can’t tell you why I ended up digressing down that uncomfortable avenue, but the reason I’m pondering the question “what’s your story” is that I’ve been wondering lately about the essentials of my story. I’ve been trying to find the line through all these baseball cards. What’s the story here? How would I boil it down to what I guess they are calling these days an “elevator pitch”? Or is it, my life, my story, all just a big mess, just a box of unsorted cards?
I’ve really been trying to answer this question most of my life, and most of the time the answer comes out in a minor key, my story one of shadows and confusion and uncertainty and loss. But why can’t the story also have sunlight? I know it’s there. I know there have been times when I’ve felt it shining down.
Which leads me, finally, to the smiling, sun-drenched visage of Jim Colborn.
Colborn had been playing a while at the time of this card and had before now one season of what looked like unusual, inexplicable success, winning 20 games for a bad Milwaukee Brewers team. It must have come to seem to him as if that season had been an aberration, that he’d always play mediocre baseball for mediocre teams, but then he was traded to the Royals and chipped in 18 wins—one of them a no-hitter, the ultimate moment in the sun—for an outstanding team, a team that had everything: speed, some power, great defense, good pitching, all of it good for 102 wins for the Royals that sunny glorious summer.
It all ended abruptly soon after, the next season, with a midseason trade to the Mariners and beyond that nothing, no more major league games. Done! One minute you’re pitching no-hitters and smiling in the sun and the next minute you drop out of the record books. But why does the end always have to be the story? Why can’t the moment in the sun be the story?
Speaking of endings, that ultimate frisbee tournament was the last organized sporting event I ever took part in. It was a bad way to go out: The worst player on a terrible team, by the end my body so beaten I couldn’t even move to catch a throw even a few feet away and got yelled at by a prick. That haunted me for a while, the fact that I went out a loser, but by now enough time has passed that I can sort it into its place. Just because it was the last time doesn’t mean it has to be the whole story. There were other, better days.
I even caught the tourney-winning pass once. It was the lesser “B” division wing of a minor tournament in a sport few take seriously, but by god we still won when I snatched that disc out of the air in the end zone for the clincher. My teammates even sort of swarmed me for a couple seconds. It was the second and last time I’d ever been surrounded by teammates, the first since years earlier, in little league, when I’d somehow driven a ball just barely over the left-field fence, the greatest memory of my childhood. The game-winning catch wasn’t on the same level as the little league home run, but it was still pretty good. I held onto that frisbee for quite a while, long after the ragged victory scrum had dissipated, even after most of my teammates had started the long walk across the fields to the parking lot.
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(Love versus Hate update: Jim Colborn’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest. It’s a sunny moment for love!)