Orlando PenaMarch 11, 2009
I turned 41 a few days ago, the same age as Orlando Pena was in 1975 when he was the oldest player in the American League. It’s an age when most people have already moved on to the next stage in earthly existence, the one that comes after the early dreams of what life might be have rusted or collapsed or dissolved. If you’re still living in that first stage, you won’t be for much longer. That first stage began for me as Pena’s was ending, my conscious life dawning as I began to become aware of the Cardboard Gods. I don’t remember getting Pena’s 1975 card, one from the very first series of cards I collected, but I’m sure I thought I would never grow as old as the wizened coot shown here. He would only appear in a few games in 1975. By early May he would be released.
I never did have to face the public microcosm of dying that is the end of a long career in professional sports, but I think I may have gotten a small insight into the sadness of that ending yesterday afternoon, when I read what my brother wrote about our old cat Rumpus’ last hours. What made me wet-eyed in my cubicle was seeing the dates of the big guy’s life written down, 1994-2009. It’s a span that could have been that of a veteran who had found a way to stick around in the majors for a while but eventually just got too old to stay on the field. In fact, if I had been one of the chosen few with the athletic ability and will to get to the pros and stay there, it could have been my career span, though it would have been one with a fairly lengthy prelude in the minors, given that I was 26 in 1994. But that sounds about right. Even in the realm of fantasy I’d have to be kind of a low-rent palooka who somehow figured out a way to survive.
The years slide by silently, so it takes something like the death of a pet or the end of a longtime veteran’s career to throw a spotlight on that continual erosion. When Rumpus first came into my life I was as close in years to little league age as I was to the age I am now. I looked different. I believed I had potential, but it was all tangled up inside me. I hoped and feared something huge would land on my head and change everything. Nothing ever did. I lived in New York City, city of wealth and youth, and I was poor and felt as if younger hipper smarter people were already crowding me scornfully onto the junkheap of irrelevancy. I drank quite a lot. I had enough pent-up sexual tension to walk to Iowa or chew through steel. I had a job at a liquor store, which certainly qualified as a go-nowhere position although it did involve going places sometimes, i.e., to deliver bottles of 80-proof “medicine” to the moistly rotting apartments of alcoholics so ruined they’d shatter if they were forced to confront the sunlight of the day. I wasn’t crazy about the sunlight either; it made me feel as if I was wasting my life. So during most days, before my shift began, I stayed inside and waited for life to begin, but the pain of waiting usually overwhelmed me and I tried to blur things somehow. And so they blurred. And so here I am, fifteen years later, basically the same, only with more wrinkles and a little less voltage coursing through my charged inner tangle of worry and regret.
And same as always, I’m looking forward to baseball season. This year I’ll be keeping a close eye on a few players in particular, the last remaining guys in the majors who are older than I am. The ranks have been thinning at an ever-increasing rate, and soon enough there won’t be a single guy left to call me, should the situation ever somehow arise, “kid.” Jeff Kent and Greg Maddux have already officially announced their retirements, and I believe The Gambler has also decided to finally walk away, if not run. One of the last members of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox to remain with the team, Mike Timlin, is currently unsigned and appears as if he may be done. Also, according to Newsday, Moises Alou is leaning toward retirement. Luiz Gonzalez is also unsigned, though he apparently has been talking with the Pirates about adding his fading skills to their ongoing exercise in baseball dubiety.
That leaves, by my count, just ten guys older than me:
Matt Stairs 2/27/68
Tom Gordon 11/18/67
Trevor Hoffman 10/13/67
John Smoltz 5/15/67
Doug Brocail 5/16/67
Omar Vizquel 4/24/67
Tim Wakefield 8/2/66
Tom Glavine 3/25/66
Randy Johnson 9/10/63
Jamie Moyer 11/18/62
What is it that has enabled them to remain so long in the life of their dreams?
1. Be a tricky old cuss. Orlando Pena’s entry in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers names his key pitch as his “Cuban Fork Ball,” then points out that the “Cuban Fork Ball” was generally considered to be a spitter. The entry goes on to quote from Don Schiffer’s Baseball Handbook-1964: “built like a vertical pretzel . . . [Pena] has a wide assortment of pitches and can effectively use two or three types of throwing motions.” In this description the Cuban Pena calls to mind two of his long-lasting countrymen, Orlando Hernandez and Luis Tiant. If you want to last, learn some new pitches, maybe even some that push the envelope of what’s accepted, and change up your delivery so you aren’t coming at people the same way again and again and again.
2. Hold true to the dreams of youth. Omar Vizquel had a dream, albeit an odd one, and recently he attained it. Maybe we all need to keep dreaming dreams, the odder the better.
3. Be a nice guy. It’s unclear if this actually helps anyone stick around, but at least in the case of some of the old guys, such as Tim Wakefield and Jamie Moyer, any thought that they are overstaying their welcome is softened by news of their tireless charitable work and modest manner.
4. Blend into the background. The player older than me who I know least about, Doug Brocail, is actually the one who most resembles me in a key way: his relative invisibility. He has been playing professional baseball since my freshman year in college over twenty years ago, but I can’t come up with a single memory of him beyond a vague, persistent awareness of his name. In a way, his eventual departure will be the saddest of all, like the death of a bird that sings softly and unassumingly outside your window your whole life, but you never really fully notice the sound until its gone.
5. Embrace the improbable, unpredictable nature of life. In other words, worship at the altar of the knuckleball. My favorite Red Sox player for some time now has been Tim Wakefield. The hope is that his long career, already stretched far beyond its probable extinction by his reliance on a pitch that could not break a straw-thin icicle, will be lengthened further by the increased depth of the Red Sox staff. I hope this is true. When the day comes that he is finally unable to continue, you may just find me weeping in my cubicle.