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Thurman Munson

February 3, 2012

A Brother’s Voice

for Sean Dolan

I followed my big brother everywhere he would allow me to follow. This went on long after childhood. After college, utterly clueless about what to do, I crowded into the narrow railroad apartment my brother was living in on 9th Street in Manhattan. I spent weeks huddled there as if taking shelter from bombings, drinking beer and eating entire boxes of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and watching television. The whole world terrified me. I understood I needed to make some money somehow, but I had no skills and only one vague, impossible goal: to be a writer of books.

Because my brother had once worked for UPS, I felt slightly less paralyzed with fear when considering applying for work there than I would anywhere else in the overpoweringly daunting megalopolis. I got hired as a temporary driver’s helper, and then after the holidays I shifted over to loading packages at the UPS warehouse in the middle of the night. I often got home from work as my brother was leaving for his job with a publisher of nonfiction books for young readers.

Incapable of making friends on my own, I had no social life beyond what I could siphon off from my brother. I got to know some of his friends from the publishing house. Unlike my job at the warehouse, where I spent my ten-minute break alone in the back of a truck scowling into my paperback copy of Dante’s Inferno, the place where my brother worked seemed to have a lot of shared weird hilarious life spilling over the margins of the daily grind. My brother was in a lunchtime Strat-O-Matic league there, and reports on the games in that league and on other real and imaginary doings were filed periodically by one of the editors in the persona of a crusty besotted Runyanesque sportswriter named Pokerchips Munson. My brother showed me some of the works of Pokerchips Munson, and they always made me laugh. More importantly, they gave me a sense when I needed it most that it was possible for someone to write for the sheer joy of it, and though I would and will always have a tough time remembering it, I got a sense that this impulse—writing for the fuck of it and the fun of it—was the key to bringing some real human life to the page. I was reading Dante every day, hoping for genius to somehow seep into my package-smudged fingers, but in the end Pokerchips Munson ended up meaning much more to me than Dante.

The creator and caretaker of Pokerchips Munson was a senior editor named Sean Dolan. He was a little older than my brother and me, and he didn’t come out for drinks as much as some of my brother’s other co-workers, including Sean’s brother Terrance. Like Sean, Terrance was a brilliant storyteller, and some of my best memories of those years include sitting in the back of the International bar in the wee hours of the morning as Terrance told us tales from his life of violence and inebriation and hilarity and mayhem and wonder growing up in the toxic mysterious wastelands of Long Island. I didn’t hang out as much with Sean, but even so he came to have a significant place in my lfie. There was something calming and encouraging about him. The adult world seemed to me to be a place where you of necessity gradually narrowed yourself down to nothing, but here was a guy who had been at it for a while and had found a way to keep his world wide.

The place where my brother worked seemed to be riddled with battles and upheavals, my brother and his friends  pitted against various solitary backstabbers out for personal advancement. That’s how it came to me in my brother’s stories anyway, or at any rate how it stands now in my poor and entirely suspect memory. It’s been a long time. My favorite story from those days involves Sean and his brother Terrance. They were a meeting in which one of the backstabbers was pushing an agenda that adversely affected the Dolans. The younger, hotter-tempered Dolan rose to his feet, fists clenched.

“I was going to kill him,” Terrance told us late one night at the International. “And then I heard Sean. His voice.”

“Terrance,” Sean had said. Just that, his name. But it was enough, that voice that had always been with him, a steadying hand on his shoulder. A brother’s voice. Terrance came back to himself. He sat back down.

Sean was the reason I wrote my first book, a young adult novel. He had remarked to me and my brother that there seemed to be a lack of young adult novels about basketball. Someone else could have said this and it wouldn’t have made any impact, but for some reason his voice triggered something. It was calm encouragement and was just what I needed. I quit my job at UPS and spent the summer back in Vermont, sleeping on couches and writing every day. I never sold the novel, but that doesn’t change that the writing of it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To be writing a novel, waking up every day and pushing it forward a little more and a little more. It was a glimpse of my dreamed-of impossible life.

When I finished the book I went back to New York and resumed living with my brother. Sean read my book and praised it, which thrilled me, and though the publisher he and his brother and my brother worked for didn’t publish fiction, on the strength of my novel Sean offered me a gig writing one of their nonfiction titles. It didn’t pay much, maybe enough to live on for a month of three-for-a-dollar mac and cheese, but I didn’t give a shit. Because of Sean, I was a writer of books.

Sean eventually left that publisher, as did Terrance and my brother and all our other friends there. Everyone went their separate ways, as is the way of the world. I ended up in Chicago. I had gone on from writing that first book for Sean to writing several others, all nonfiction books for young readers, but my dream of getting a book out into the world that had my own voice in it, a book worthy of Pokerchips Munson, had proven elusive. In the summer of 2006, I was at a low in my writing, having spent several years working on a novel that I was finding impossible to get published. One of my chosen methods of anesthetizing the pain of disappointment, of life, is to immerse myself in an on-line version of the game Pokerchips Munson used to report on, Strat-O-Matic. It is an extremely solitary pursuit, for the most part, and I generally have no interaction whatsoever with the other managers in my on-line leagues, the point for me being the dissolving of my actual social being into the particulars of the game. But at that low point of my writing life in the summer of 2006 I turned to a newly begun Strat-O-Matic online league and noticed that one of my fellow managers had a familiar name. I sent him a message titled “Pokerchips Munson.” He wrote back instantly: “Josh, is it really you?”

That was in late August, 2006. Within a few weeks, for the fuck of it and the fun of it, and quite possibly also for the simple reason that I could tell Sean about it, I started posting on a blog my thoughts about baseball cards I randomly pulled from my old shoebox. Sean was one of the first people I told about the blog. He was immediately appreciative. Yesterday and today, I’ve been looking back at his messages to me in the Strat-O-Matic league message system and in my email archives, and it’s amazing how often he took time to tell me he liked what I was doing. More than that, he told me what I was doing in such an informed way that it seemed he knew where I wanted to go with the entire project better than I did. Years later, when I started trying to sell a book that told a story of me and my brother and my baseball cards, the center of my proposal was a something Sean said just a little over a month after the start of my blog, back when I’d barely begun. He knew where I was trying to go, and he encouraged me to get there.

He kept encouraging me over the years. I never encountered him again in the Strat-O-Matic leagues, but I exchanged messages with him periodically over email or through facebook, and I got to know him a little better through his voluminous and wonderful writings on his Lonesome Coyote blog. Not too long ago, he posted something on facebook about how Jerry Garcia helped him get through his long runs on cold days. I don’t do a whole lot of facebook chattering, but I chimed in on that post to join Sean in singing the praises of Jerry. Sean replied, “Josh—damn, man, did I know you were a Deadhead?” I didn’t have a chance to reply to that in a timely way, and these online conversations quickly move on to other ones and so his question was left hanging, an open invitation for more talk some other time. Like all the interactions I ever had with Sean, it seemed like there would be no end to the conversation we could have on the subject at hand, whatever it was—Bob Dylan or the Dead or old San Antonio Spurs point guards or Frederick Exley or anything and everything beautiful and ridiculous and alive under the sun.

Baseball, too, sure. He loved baseball. His favorite player was Thurman Munson. I wish I could ask him his thoughts on this 1978 Thurman Munson card, but earlier this week, Sean died in his sleep.

His voice was a hand on my shoulder, calming me and telling me to go on, go deeper and wider and farther. In an email to me in the fall of 2006, when I was starting to write for the first time in my life really just for the fuck of it and the fun of it, Sean wrote, “Proceed fearlessly, heeding no voices but your own.” A hand on my shoulder. A brother’s voice.

16 comments

  1. I’m so sorry


  2. Josh, sorry to hear about your friend.

    If it means anything to you, though you clearly wouldn’t have known it, you’ve been my Sean.


  3. Oh, Josh, I’m so sorry to see this. What a wonderful piece, but so painful.


  4. We loved him, too.

    You nailed it, as you so often do. I sometimes wonder what Sean thought of my wild flailing mad idiot-savant (w/o so much savant part) attempts to run a Strat-o-matic team when the only stats I’d ever heard of were ERA and a batting average. Yet his generosity of spirit was such that it included us all. His presence was warm, wise, a bit dark, and funny as hell.

    He was brilliant, and so are you. Thank you for this.


  5. Most of us blow through life, almost unnoticed. A precious few, touch other lives.


  6. Poignant and evocative. You really captured the essence of our much beloved Sean. He was the jewel of Chelsea House. I used to lament to him how I wasn’t ever able to go back to Yankee Stadium after Thurman’s death. I’m sure they’ll be great buds in that fantasy baseball league in the sky. I’m 56, so I get to say this: God bless you, Josh Wilker.

    “Heaven gives its favorites early death” –Lord Byron


  7. I used to work at the publishing house, with some of the same characters, and I have to say this is beautiful. Thank you for it.


  8. Thanks for the good thoughts, everybody. Here’s to the idea of Sean raising a glass right now with Munson. Or better yet, Munson and Jerry Garcia.


  9. Another great piece. Thank you. I, too, was a great admirer of Thurm. He was my favorite Yankee and the Yankees were (and still are my team). I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Munson’s death – on the back of my Sting-Ray peddling down the sidewalk of my boyhood block. It was my JFK moment. I can show you the precise sidewalk spacer I was on when I heard the news. This was my first experience with the death of a human being I cared about. I won’t go on to regale you with Munson’s qualities as a man and as a player. It was what it was. What’s remarkable to me is how baseball could be such an important part of a boy’s soul. If today’s players could only understand the impact they have/could have in shaping a kid’s life. Maybe then it could be America’s game.


  10. Beautiful.

    Not knowing Sean at all, this piece is a beautiful way to remember him.


  11. I’m really sorry to hear about Sean — and I hope you and your brother and his brother and everybody are holding on as best they can. He sounds like he was a special person. This was a hell of a way to remember him.


  12. Josh, our paths didn’t cross at CH–I was gone by early 1991. I remember well the joy that the Strat-O-Matic league brought to everyone who participated in it. Thank you for writing so eloquently about Sean…this will bring a smile to the face of everyone who knew him.


  13. Josh, my condolences on the untimely death of your friend. All deaths are untimely, make no mistake, and damned inconvenient to our needs.

    I do not wish to unduly intrude upon Mr Dolan’s eulogy here, but the Munson card image spoke to me. On 2 August 1979, my family was returning from a mid-week conference, held at a modest resort in Ocean Shores, Washington. This death rattle of the 1970s included all the usual esteem-building snake oil, and we were certified upon completion to be winning at wellness. So we had that going for us, which was nice, but the groovy halo didn’t make it out of the parking lot. My parents announced to the car-bound audience that they would divorce once we got back to Portland. I was the oldest of four kids, and at age 12 I had no way to process that intellectually, certainly my younger sibs did not, but the proclamation was met with a long stony silence. When we pulled over an hour or so later for gas, I walked into the snack shop and heard the radio for the first time that day. Who knew there were Yankees fans in coastal Washington, yet the old guy behind the register was wearing his NY cap with something less than typical pinstriped swagger. “Thurman Munson is dead,” he told me; probably he was telling every customer this, even the ones not purchasing baseball cards. My father was a lifetime Yankees fan and would no doubt be interested in this news. I declined to be the one to tell him. It was not until later that night, at home, that his despair bobbed to the surface about Munson, resulting in a more demonstrative tantrum than usual. There was wailing. This was, I was told later, how Italians mourned death, even grown men (especially grown men). That didn’t really explain the next five years of tantrums, but that’s a story for another time.

    No words will bring your friend back, Josh. I know you know this, but you honor him with yours. Please continue to honor him by living your life and loving your loved ones with zealous intensity.


  14. Very sorry to hear about your friend. At least you had baseball to bring you two closer together. Those memories you will always have.
    http://www.fromthisseat.com


  15. Sorry for your loss, Josh. You are one of my very favorite baseball writers. Keep up the good work.


  16. Thanks. I really do appreciate all the encouraging words.



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