Dave LaRocheJuly 23, 2009
In college, I lived for a year in a trailer with a guy on the soccer team named Smitty. Smitty had been a conference all-star the year before, but in the year I lived with him he fell into a season-long goal-scoring slump. Maybe it was the trailer’s proximity to the Long Trail Tavern right across Route 100. Maybe it was the series of keg parties we had at the trailer. Maybe it was the trailer itself. The year before, Smitty and I had both lived on campus, within the comforting institutional embrace of the college, and now here we were subsisting on three-for-a-dollar boxes of macaroni and cheese in a narrow thin-walled rectangle on wheels, exactly the kind of place that I kept encountering in my study of contemporary fiction as a site of things going terribly wrong. Nothing went terribly wrong in our trailer that I was aware of, but I was always partially braced for it, and then after I moved on to other living arrangements I retained that half-braced posture toward life, even on up to the present moment. Maybe something similar happened to Smitty, and it affected his goal-scoring abilities.
I don’t think I’d see such a thing as a possible explanation for a slump if Smitty had been the same kind of player as his counterpart on the soccer team attack, a short, powerfully built guy named Todd. Smitty manned the right wing and Todd, whose smashed-down facial features earned him the nickname “Skillet” (you know, as if he’d been smashed in the face with one), charged up and down the left wing. Skillet had one setting as a player, on a scale of one to ten: eleven. He’d bash through defenders rather than ever even think about trying to go around them, and every offering from his foot was a hard line drive toward the goal (he scoffed at passing). If he had lived with me at the trailer, he’d have been completely unaffected by its intimations of transience and woe. He probably also would have put his fist through a couple walls and maybe punched me in the face a few times for good measure for taking too long in the dribbling shower.
My two most vivid intramural basketball memories involve Smitty and Skillet. The year Smitty and I lived together, we had the best intramural squad at the school, but in the finals we tensed up a little and got into a tight game with a bunch of rugby guys, who slowed the pace of the game to a crawl. With a second left and us down by one, Smitty had a chance to win the game with a one and one, but he bricked the first shot and we lost. The next year, on a much worse team and in a meaningless regular season game (as if any intramural game could be anything but meaningless), I had a slim, singular moment as a hero, putting my team up by one by sinking two free throws with maybe three seconds left, but then as I was backpedaling euphorically on defense, Skillet, who was not a skilled basketball player, raced the ball up court and sank one of his ugly push shots from the top of the key just before the buzzer sounded.
But what I actually wanted to talk about was Smitty in his all-star season, the year before we moved into the trailer. That year he was something that Skillet, himself a perennial conference all-star, could never be: beautiful. Smitty was fast and had a powerful shot with either foot, but he also had something in his game that was like finesse but seems in my mind to have somehow gone beyond that. He saw things a little differently. You might even say, as he sometimes did, that he had a screw loose.
There was one goal in particular that I guess I’ll remember for the rest of my life. He was flying down the wing on the right side of the field, and he’d gotten free for a slim moment. He had a shot at the goal, just for a second, and just a partial shot, from a diagonal, a tiny window of space in a tiny window of time. Anyone else, not just Skillet, but anyone, would have spent that slim moment by driving a shot as hard as they could toward the goal, and anyone else, then, would have failed, because the goalie had every possible angle covered but the one Smitty saw. Like a perfectly timed punch line, Smitty came to an abrupt, astonishing stop and with a motion like Charlie Chaplin imitating a butler snapping to attention he chipped the ball up into the air, where it floated like a helium balloon in an arc that at its apex caught the fringe of blue sky above the pine trees ringing the field before descending just past the flummoxed goalie’s fingers, grazing the underside of the crossbar and settling into the far corner of the goal.
It takes a special kind of an athlete to bust out a magnificent irrationality such as that. Competitive sport is so often a question of blazing speed versus blazing speed, power versus power, one team’s Skillet ramming into the other team’s Skillet, that guys such as Smitty are few and far between. That’s why I love Dave LaRoche, who I thought of yesterday with the trade of his son, Adam, from the Pirates to the Red Sox. The elder LaRoche, several years into his long career as an effective lefty reliever, introduced a pitch into his arsenal that was like a baseball counterpart to Smitty’s helium balloon goal. The pitch, soon dubbed the “LaLob,” was a very high arcing and very slow pitch that LaRoche seems to claim was a curveball, even though with its velocity (on average 35 miles per hour) the only curve possible would seem to be the one caused by Earth’s gravitational pull. The batter would be bracing for the usual hard and harder offerings that without exception had always come to them from the mound, and LaRoche would send the ball up there with all the urgency of a tipsy octogenarian pitching horseshoes. The game, for a moment, would tip off its axis. The batter, much more often than not, would flailingly fail in his attempt to crush the lob to the moon. And everyone, as with the moment after Smitty’s great goal, would find themselves laughing as they cheered.