Sparky AndersonFebruary 13, 2009
Somewhere I Lost Connection
(continued from Johnny Grubb)
At some point during my trip to Europe in 1990, the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series, their last such win as of this moment, February 2009, and their first since Sparky Anderson was at the helm. Anderson had led them through their golden age in the 1970s, and since his departure they had struggled, but in 1990 they jumped out to an Opening Day lead in the NL West and held it the entire season. I may have remembered this anyway, but it’s been hammered into my memory by my father-in-law, a Reds fan, who occasionally salves his frustration over the current state of his team by using the phrase “wire-to-wire” to recall the 1990 champions. They never trailed from April to October. They were never losing. And when they got into the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s, they duplicated their doubt-free regular season by annihilating the puffed-up, overconfident A.L. champs in four straight games.
There are seasons like that, I guess. Anderson presided over one such season just a few years earlier: the wire-to-wire cakewalk of the 1984 Detroit Tigers featuring Lodi alum Johnny Grubb. Before that, Anderson had won championships with the Reds in 1975 and 1976, but in both seasons even that Reds juggernaut, among the best teams ever assembled, had to spend some time out of first place. Surprisingly enough, the ’75 squad, which finished with 108 wins, didn’t move into first place for good until June 7; the ’76 edition claimed first slightly sooner, May 29, but went on to have a taste of the wire-to-wire experience by sweeping through the playoffs and World Series undefeated, the only team ever to do so.
But most seasons don’t come close to being wire-to-wire successes. Most seasons end in elimination. Things get bad, and things get worse. I guess you know the tune.
It’s been almost twenty years since the November morning that found me shivering on line outside the UPS building on West 43rd Street, wondering how I was going to get through the winter. Somehow I did. Somehow I always do. Somehow we all do until we don’t.
A few days ago the long winter briefly loosened its grip. I started thinking about spring, which means thinking about baseball. Pitchers and catchers. I wrote an email to one of my friends, a fellow Red Sox fan, and told him that I find myself looking forward to spring training more and more every year. The warm sun shining. Everything still to come.
In 1978, Topps produced a manager’s card for every team. These cards troubled me. First of all, at that point in my life I wasn’t really ready to consider that managers were people, too, that they had birth dates and hometowns and threw right or left and batted right or left or both just like everyone else. They were part of the heaven of the Cardboard Gods but only in a sort of impotent way, not worthy of their own cards or of the statistics that provided the conduit between me and the real gods, the ones who played the game. But on the back of these 1978 cards the managers were given statistics just like any other god, but their statistics were often disquieting, not only because they were filled with strange minor league towns where anemic batting and pitching figures were produced, but also because they often ended in something other than the unsaid triumph of every other baseball card: current placement in the major leagues. This Sparky Anderson card, for example, features one brief stop in the major leagues, in 1959 with the eight-place Phillies, where Anderson hit .218 with no home runs. That stop is flanked on not just one side but on both sides with several nondescript minor league seasons. It was the seasons after the brief stop in the majors that haunted me. I’d never seen cards like these before, cards that tailed off into obscurity. Cards that rose from Lodi and fell back to Lodi. Cards that came to an end.
I consider all this a failure. These words. I missed it, the core feeling of that trip of mine in October and November of 1990. Instead I sang the only tune I know: things get bad, and things get worse. I never touched the fragile intermittent joy of the trip, perhaps knowing I’d shatter it with my thick fingers if I tried. I was 22 years old. Seeing the world. Everything still to come.
I may never have written so much as I wrote during that trip, scribbling down every thought and impression I could muster the strength to record, some of the writing miserable, lost, angry, some of it garbled prayers of praise, verging on an expression of solitary bliss.
Most of the time I was alone, walking or hitching or writing or staring. But I also met people along the way, friends for a day or an afternoon or an hour.
There was Eugene, fresh out of the Navy, who carried a box-cutter and told me that if anybody tried to mess with him he’d make them regret it. “They’ll have to really fuck with me,” he said, “but if they do, I’ll fuck ‘em up. I’ll gladly cut the shit out of them.” He also told me that he tried to learn a new word every day, and as we were climbing an alp he told me the definition of stolid.
There was the thin sad Dutch guy who I played a hand of gin rummy with, and who kept sneaking glances at me, and the Welsh guy who told me later that day, “Yeah, that bloke’s a fruit,” then proceeded to instruct me on all the things that were wrong with American football.
There was the Australian guy who walked through the red light district in Hamburg with me and described the scent of vomit on the breath of the prostitute who approached him. The next day, at a museum together, he told me a story that had us both convulsing with laughter, about being at a zoo a few days earlier when a male lion was humping a female lion. Minutes later, in the Old Masters section of the museum, we got separated, and I never saw him again. I have always wondered if for some reason he gave me the slip. As if to repay that favor, a week or so later, in Amsterdam, I grew tired of walking around the city with a loud young optimist from Arkansas, so I hung back for a second as he forged ahead on the narrow winding street, obliviously continuing his monologue, and then I darted onto a side street and never saw him again.
And, finally, there was the Canadian girl I met in Scotland, as I was running out of time and money. We went out to a bar, got drunk, and on the way back to the youth hostel bought two more bottles of beer, which she opened with her teeth as we stood on a bridge under the stars. I was in love, or something like it. A few minutes later I was getting my first human contact of the whole trip, a drunken and ultimately frustrating clothes-on grope-fest in a room with several other youth hostel guests lying there asleep or awake and listening in their beds.
The next day, after spending the morning walking around in a daze, in something like love, I walked into the common room of the hostel to find the Canadian girl listening to a guy singing and playing his acoustic guitar. He was an American with dark curly hair and the ability to finger-pick while he sang in tune. Dave was his name. Even after I joined the two of them he kept his attention trained on the Canadian girl. Whenever he finished singing one song he asked the girl what song she wanted to hear next. Finally I got sick of being left out of the whole process.
“Do you know any Creedence?” I blurted as he was strumming the last chord of a Canadian-girl request.
“Sure,” Dave said, and before I could ask for the song I wanted to hear he started playing it.
“Just about a year ago, I set out on the road,” he sang. He had a good voice. He smiled as he sang, his brown eyes fixed on the blue eyes of the Canadian girl.
I guess you know the tune. I headed back down south, to London and my unscheduled appointment with the anti-terrorist officers at the airport, and the Canadian girl and Dave traveled north together, to a commune where hippies whispered to the soil, causing magically gigantic vegetables to grow.
But since that tune doesn’t tell the whole story, I’m going to play one more, just for the hell of it. Because it’s February, and we’re all still standing, and pitchers and catchers have just reported. Because no story is only about lost connections.
I met a guy in a bar early in the trip, in Frankfurt. I don’t remember what he looked like, but his name was Phil. Phil was loaded, six Guinnesses in him by the time I sat down beside him. It was his first day in Europe. Four years earlier, he’d been the spring training bat boy for the Boston Red Sox. Here’s what I wrote down the next day in my notebook.
Phil the bat boy told me about everybody. Benzinger: “A crazy fucker.” Jim Ed: “A classy guy. Even Wade Boggs called him sir, and he wasn’t joking.” Easler: “One day I touched his bat and said, ‘Since I touched it you’ll do good’ and he fucken hit a homer and said, ‘From now on you touch my bat every time, understand.’ He must have hit 18 home runs that spring!” Buckner: He used to taunt Phil the batboy—”You want to touch my bat? Psych!”—pulling it back and waddling gimpy-legged toward the on-deck circle, cackling. He told me about how the pitchers would get him in the bullpen for “bunt practice,” which meant he stood there with the bat as The Can, Rocket, and Nip threw at him. “They would throw these big bending curveballs that looked like they were gonna hit my head.” He said the nicest guy on the team was Can. The Can would sit on the top step and shoot the shit with him. “Mostly he talked about his wife,” Phil said. “The only guy besides Can who called me by name was Johnny Pesky,” Phil the bat boy told me. “He was a great old guy. He used to have me drive him around in the golf cart—”Come on, Phil, let’s drive through the crowd and see what they’re doing today.”
He told me about one spring training game, against the Tigers. In the fifth-inning of the game that had featured an unusually high amount of balls being fouled off into the stands, Mike Greenwell approached Phil and told him that he needed to go get the key to the door below the on-deck circle, where additional game balls were stored.
“Apparently this was a gag they pulled all over the league, because everyone I went to said to go to someone else. I was fuckin’ shitting a brick. ‘Oh my god, I got to get some balls!’ So finally they send me to the Tigers dugout, and the players tell me to see Sparky Anderson, who’s in the middle of managing the fuckin’ game. Finally he lets me in on the joke. Oh man, they ragged me so hard for that. A door under the on-deck circle!”
I was laughing. Phil was laughing. What could possibly make me happier? The gods playing pranks. The warm sun shining. Everything still to come.