Cardboard Books: A False SpringMay 30, 2008
“It was a land of horizons.” – Pat Jordan, A False Spring
The first maps of the world I ever studied were the ones comprised of lists of place-names and numbers on the backs of baseball cards. Some of those maps, the ones on the backs of the best cards, contained only the names of cities I knew. Major league cities. Other maps, the ones on the backs of the untested, the mediocre, the obscure, had places I’d never heard of. The bottom line of statistics on every card totaled only the numbers accrued in the major league cities. Accomplishments in unknown towns didn’t count.
Looking at these maps, I began to understand that the world had horizons, edges, and that it was possible to drift beyond the horizon, where nothing mattered. More troubling still was the nature of many of the maps of the least of the Cardboard Gods, where the list of place names flickered back and forth again and again between major and minor, between known and unknown, between counting toward the total in the bottom line and not counting at all. These complicated maps suggested terrain where the borders are impossible to discern. You won’t even be able to tell when you’re walking off the edge of the world.
Pat Jordan should have been one of my Cardboard Gods. Many of the players he played with and against as a young man in the minor leagues made it onto the baseball cards I collected as a kid in the 1970s, but few of them matched his raw talent. He threw hard when he entered professional baseball as a sought-after 18-year-old bonus baby, and he threw even harder when his still developing frame filled out the following year. Like many flame-throwing phenoms, he often struggled with wildness, but on those days when he had command of his pitches he was dominant, nearly unhittable. To that point all the baseball stories that had been told, all the maps of the world that had been made available to baseball fans, suggested that Pat Jordan would one day have a baseball card showing his walk totals and ERA decreasing from year to year as the darker edges of the world receded. He would be featured on a baseball card that had no room on the back for minor league cities, no room for oblivion, no room for doubt.
Jordan was not the first to live a coming-of-age baseball story that went in the opposite direction, toward ever-greater oblivion or doubt, but he was the first to tell about it. In his classic memoir, A False Spring, he provides a map of uncharted territory that remains every bit as arresting today as when the book first came out in 1975. Since that time, narratives about the fringes of professional sports have become more familiar—as I read Jordan’s book I was reminded at times of both Slapshot and Bull Durham. But when these films came to mind (in the former when Jordan describes how all the minor leaguers at spring training would gather in the morning to watch a television fitness show featuring a limber, voluptuous female host; in the latter when Jordan describes his Nuke LaLoosh-like desire to stubbornly blast brainless fastballs by everyone) Jordan’s version of the minor leagues always seemed by comparison darker, more painful, more real.
This is not to say that the book is without humor, or that its sharp, harrowing focus on the failures of a young, unhappy loner precludes a rich and varied cast of characters. We see future career hit-by-pitch-leader Ron Hunt as a teenager who calls every older woman in his life “Mom”; we hear of a player who disappears from the team one day after it was discovered (by a young Phil Niekro) that he’d been cheating his teammates at poker; we get to spend time with a beer-swilling minor league manager named Bill Steinecke, who conducts the following seminar in the middle of a game after noticing that his players don’t seem to comprehend a remark he just made about sex:
“I don’t suppose any of you know what I’m talkin’ about? No, I expect not, You think it’s just push-push and goodbye, huh? Well, Podners, it’s time you got educated. With a woman you gotta do things. Make them happy, too.” And then, while we listened with rapt attention—and the opposing team loaded the bases—Bill gave us our first course in sex education. His course was very thorough, touching all the bases: physical (various positions, unusual acts), anatomical (a description of the female body); medicinal (prevention of disease), and psychological (“Make them happy, too.”) It was very graphic and, at appropriate moments, punctuated by darting little gestures of his tongue, while his eyes, no bigger than Le Suer peas, gleamed. (p. 115)
Of course, the most vivid character of all, thanks to the author’s refusal to varnish anything about his younger self, is the one glowering in the photograph at the top of this post. Throughout A False Spring the young man simultaneously unraveling and growing up at the center of the action comes across as immature, arrogant, even unlikable. Early on, his recounting of his high school career suggests that he cared very little about his teammates, thinking of them as useless background figures in his quest to get a big signing bonus from a major league team. Upon entering professional baseball he expands this general disdain into a complete lack of interest (when he’s not pitching) in whether his team wins or loses; in fact, he roots against the success of other pitchers on the team. Outside the ballpark is not much better, his aloofness setting him apart from townspeople and his teammates, his lack of social skills making many of his rare interactions awkward, even ugly, such as when he approaches two older teammates talking to local girls on the street and asks, loudly, “Who’re the cunts?”
He’s not an easy figure to root for, but you begin to root for him like you would root for yourself. You too were once young, arrogant, awkward, self-centered. You too once thought you’d live forever, that the fastballs would paint the corners, that doubt and oblivion would dwindle then vanish, that the winning would find a way to start and never end.
Off in the distance is the dream, a big league callup, and there are days when you feel young and strong, and those days the dream seems close, a sure thing. Other days, the majority of days, you can’t find the strike zone, you feel yourself getting older, weaker, ever more uncertain, you pass the empty hours roaming aimlessly and alone. Here is the challenge laid down by A False Spring, by all great books: Stop dreaming. Open your eyes.
Welcome to the land of horizons.
For more Pat Jordan, check out the recently published The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, edited by Alex Belth.