Mike VailNovember 21, 2011
The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting
V Is for Vail
I have been working on this one for a while but uncertainly. I am no rookie on a hot streak when I write. There is the hesitancy, the fractured focus, the hitches of a struggling veteran player trying to rediscover his swing.
I’m a rookie at parenting. I just got back to my desk from going upstairs toward the sound of crying. The crying of the baby brought me upstairs, and I rocked him in my arms for a long time, longer than usual, and it was looking like one of the many times when he just decides he is not going to go to sleep, ever, but he finally did start drifting off. This is what I root for these days. When his little eyelids start drooping, it’s like I’m watching the beginnings of a late-inning rally. Come on, keep it going.
I’m not a rookie as a fan, that’s for sure. I’ve been channeling my passions into the rooting for groups of strangers to do certain things better than other groups of strangers for my entire conscious life. This is my life, and there’s really no escape from it at this point, but there are certainly times when this tendency on my part seems ludicrous. When I was a young fan, I saw the ball and hit the ball. Simple. Come on, keep it going. Now I seem to see all sorts of things, but none of them very clearly. I don’t even know what it is exactly I’m rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Can I put this on a banner and bring it to the big game?
Before my family moved to Vermont, I lived in New Jersey for the earliest years of my life, and I assumed for a long time that if I’d stayed there I would have become a Mets fan. This is based partly on my first baseball cards, which I got in New Jersey in 1974 and which included most memorably a Cleon Jones card; it is also based partly on my trips in later years to Shea on visits to see my father, during which the hapless late 1970s Mets became my second-favorite team. But I was actually born in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is not too far from the Pennsylvania border, and if my family had never moved from that town I likely would have grown up rooting for Pennsylvania teams, most specifically the Phillies, like my older cousins who also lived in Willingboro. So instead of the Red Sox and Celtics for me it would probably have been the Phillies and the 76ers and on down the line. I never became a raving fan of college sports, but as a kid in Vermont I rooted for the only regional team, Boston College, that ever rose to any national prominence. So I suppose it’s possible that had I never left my birthplace I would have on some fall Saturday afternoon in my childhood realized that one of the two teams on television hurling themselves murderously at one another had a closer connection to me than the other, and so I would have decided to adopt Penn State as one of my teams.
I hold my baby sideways when I rock him to sleep. He faces out, away from me, and he gets a grip on my fingers with his hands. When he falls asleep I have to set him down very gently and have to then carefully pull his fingers off my hands. If I do it wrong he wakes up. It went okay this morning, and I tiptoed out of the room praying.
This 1976 card is Mike Vail’s first. His rookie card. It suggests in the understated style of the 1976 series of Topps cards that a stellar career may have just begun. The previous season, the player shown here with a determined expression on his All-American granite-jawed visage won the International League batting title, and then in a late summer call-up to the big leagues he produced a feat that more than any other came to loom over the Mets’ subsequent late-1970s nosedive back into the National League basement as a haunting specter of promise unrealized. Vail hit in 23 straight games in 1975, tying a rookie record and setting the Mets’ team record. The Mets figured they had found a future star and promptly shipped the anchor of their lineup, Rusty Staub, to Detroit. Vail injured his foot playing basketball in the winter of 1976, and this injury is often cited as the reason Vail never fulfilled the potential suggested by his hitting streak, but it seems more likely, judging from both his minor league stats (he never hit for power or stole many bases, even before the injury) and his record in later years (for a couple seasons with the Cubs, as a part-timer, he put up numbers equal to or superior to his 1975 marks), that Vail just wasn’t the superstar everyone hoped in his first major league moments he would be. He was a decent right-handed platoonist who could, in a good year, dump enough singles in front of the opposing left-fielder to hover near the .300 mark. He was never going to be, as in the wildest dreams of Mets fans watching his streak unfold, the next Joe DiMaggio. But what can you do? Being a sports fan is about having and holding onto wild dreams.
Friday morning I was on my way to dig up some of the factoids about Mike Vail included above, but before doing so I went to check my email and instead detoured to click the link on one of the headlines among the sports headlines that come up on my mail homepage: “Syracuse assistant in molestation probe (AP).” You can read the story yourself if you want. What I found most striking in it was the extremity of denial on the part of a couple Syracuse icons, head coach Jim Boeheim and former star center Rony Seikaly. Both vehemently deny even the possibility that the allegations of child molestation against assistant coach Bernie Fine could be true. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and the allegations against Fine may not be true. I’m not attempting to make a comment on that, but rather on my own reaction to the fierce denials by Seikaly and Boeheim. The denials reminded me of my own reaction, over 30 years ago, when I heard a rumor that a teammate on my seventh grade basketball team had woken up in the middle of the night during a camping trip with our coach, Mick, to discover that Mick was sucking his dick. I felt something close to outrage that such a rumor was going around about Mick. He could not possibly have done such a thing. He was a pillar in the community, beloved by all. It couldn’t be true! It was many, many years and many, many basketball teams and, presumably, many, many camping trips before a boy finally came forward and spoke out until someone listened, and Mick was arrested and found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison for “lewd and lascivious behavior with a juvenile boy.” I tend to think he got off very easy, and I tend to believe he’d been victimizing children for a long time, and I tend to get angry when I think about his sentence. I tend to believe he’d benefitted greatly from the tendency in people to collude in a denial of the worst. Even the judge who sentenced him admitted she was “impressed” with him.
I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to before the baby came. And even when I do watch a little here and there at night I watch it with the sound off so as not to disturb the baby, who spends the first part of his fractured night of sleep in his little portable bassinet in the living room. A few nights ago I watched, with the help of closed-captioning subtitles, a muted version of the interview Bob Costas conducted with Jerry Sandusky. With the toes of my left leg I gently rocked the bassinet, which helps my son fall asleep. That left leg was the one that over thirty years ago featured in a moment with my junior high basketball coach that Jerry Sandusky would likely have identified as “horseplay.” Sandusky denied—with creepy hesitancy—that he is sexually attracted to boys, but he readily admitted that he had showered with boys and that he grabbed their legs “without intent of sexual conduct.” This last part struck a chord in me. I was a mediocre athlete, but one day during a junior high basketball game I scored two baskets in a row, which was for me an unprecedented hot streak, my version of Mike Vail’s 23-game rookie-season tear. I mentioned the moment in my book:
Mick subbed for me after my second basket and sat down next to me as play resumed. He was beaming.
“You’re doing great, Josh, just excellent,” he said, which felt good. I wasn’t exactly amassing a giant stockpile of praise elsewhere in my life. As Mick spoke he let his hand fall on my bare leg. He kept it there after he’d finished talking. While watching the action on the court, he gave my thigh two long, ardent squeezes. (Cardboard Gods, p. 134)
When reading the closed-captioned subtitles of an interview and thinking back to that moment, my left leg, the one that was jiggling my baby in a bassinet, went still, like jelly congealing. I was feeling once again that happy rookie moment curdling, and it stopped me. The bassinet I had been rocking with my toes went still, too. What happens to me happens to my baby. My baby began to stir and show signs that, because I’d stopped rocking him, he was starting to wake up. His sleep is a crystalline stadium, fragile, easily shattered. Already I’m failing to guard it.
I’m not a Penn State fan, but, as I was saying, I could have been. If my family had stayed where I’d been born, near the border to Pennsylvania, who knows? It didn’t happen, and instead I threw myself into being a fan, primarily, of the Red Sox. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of histrionic drama and disappointment for that team, and my fandom during that time developed a millennial fervor in which I dreamt at length of the seemingly impossible day when my team would somehow not blow it in the end and would instead be the champions of the world. Because I was unable to formulate more human and intimate wishes for myself or those around me, because my sole way of emotionally engaging with the world was through sports, my wish for the Red Sox to win it all became far and away my greatest wish. Beyond a wish, it was a fetish, a fantasy I replayed in my mind to trigger a response otherwise inaccessible, tears forming at the corners of my eyes as I imagined running in a jubilant mob through the streets the day the Red Sox won it all. I would finally be on top of the world, and there would be, through my absolute worship of the players responsible for lifting the burden of failure and sadness from all life everywhere forever, a kind of immortality in the triumph. I imagined statues to each and every member of the chosen team, the names of all involved engraved not only in civic stone but as deep as anything could go in my mind and in the collective mind I had joined so many years before as a displaced searching hopeful child.
When considering the news out of Penn State, I noticed that my thoughts go first toward virulently distancing myself from the ugliness. In this I am not alone, I don’t think. It is a monstrous story, and so the first response is to identify a hierarchy of monsters, creatures separated completely by their monstrosities from us, and condemn them to various levels of profound punitive agony. But beyond individual acts of monstrosity the story features the element of apparent collusion, a variously implicit or explicit wish by those invested in and benefitted by an institutional image of purity to keep the ugliness hidden, thus allowing the surface image to remain pristine while the ugliness beneath festers and grows. Even this more general, collective criminality has been viewed most commonly as a monstrosity, as something those of us wishing to remain far on the outside of the issue want to view as completely apart from our own involvement. We may ask, as I have: What do I have to do with it? I’m not a fan of Penn State. I’m not like those idiot college students who rioted not on the part of the many children allegedly victimized by a serial sexual predator but instead on the part of a college coach who did little to stop the victimization. That was my first thought about the campus riot a couple weeks ago that was sparked by the firing of Joe Paterno—these students are fucking idiots, the worst. I have mulled it over since then, and I am not so far off from them, not at all. I’m a sports fan who invested his deepest powers of dreaming into a vision of being in a celebratory mob, my team immortalized in triumph that, because of my dream, had to be for me a vision of perfect purity. As the song goes, we all root for the home team, and if they don’t win it’s a shame. There’s no room in this kind of willful dreaming for any equivocation. This is the deficiency of sports fandom, and maybe of other kinds of collective passion, such as the entity that most closely resembles sports in its worst moments, organized religion: What we love needs to be pure. If I had been an 18-year-old student at Penn State last week, I probably would have been right there with the others, desperate to the point of rage to believe that a deep pure promise remained unbroken.
My father took my brother and me to Mets games in the 1970s. The stands were mostly empty. The team was bad. Mike Vail was there for a while, until in March 1978 he was waived, but I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to pin any sort of growing feelings of disappointment on him. I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to take anything too seriously. I wanted them to win the game, but it didn’t kill me if they didn’t. My brother felt the same, and my father didn’t care about the Mets or baseball at all. He saw the whole thing as idiocy and spent the game reading the New York Times and grimacing whenever a plane roared overhead. But his sons wanted to go to the game, so there he was. I was glad to be there, at a game with my brother and my father. I would go there again. I have long thought that if my family had stayed in New Jersey, which also means that I would have stayed in a house where my father lived, I would have been a Mets fan. I wonder now if this is all yet another form of wishful thinking. In a different life, maybe I could have been a fan without the kind of need that can distort and obscure. I’ve thought a lot already about bringing my son to a game, about nudging him toward being a fan. The two of us together, believing. But in what? I don’t even know what it is exactly we should be rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Still, I have that vision, that deep wish, that thing I root for: the two of us walking into a stadium together, his hand in mine so I can keep him safe.