Dave RobertsAugust 8, 2012
(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
I don’t remember Alaska. I was around two years old. My mother had met a man at a peace march the previous year. Something happened between them. Through life and its unending series of problems, you carry a belief that there’s some true path for you, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes it feels as if you’ve found this path.
The man from the peace march, Tom, then went to work as a forest fire fighter in Alaska. My mom followed him, taking my brother and me along. My dad stayed in New Jersey. I’ve always known that when I was very young I went to Alaska, but I’d thought it was part of a vacation. My mom told me recently that it wasn’t. She said she wasn’t sure whether we’d ever be coming back.
That was in 1970. I don’t know exactly when. It might have been in April, when second-year pro Dave Roberts, still searching for his first major league win, got called into a game in relief. Mike Corkins started the game but was yanked midway through the second inning. Roberts got Willie Davis to ground into a double play, ending the threat. He breezed through the next inning, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. He must have felt good, numb and high and clear and natural, the way you do when it seems you’re walking the path meant only for you.
There’s mention of this game on the back of Dave Roberts’ 1977 card, below several years of statistics showing losses outnumbering wins. The card is on my desk, near a stack of unpaid bills. There are always baseball cards and bills on my desk.
In Alaska, we lived in some kind of communal situation among the crew of young drifting men who’d ended up in Alaska to fight forest fires. The place was hazy with pot smoke. There was one other child there besides my brother and me, a little girl my age. Her mother wasn’t around. Her father was one of the firefighters.
Dave Roberts had to leave that perfect moment from 1970 behind. He had to go on, losing more often than he won, surviving, moving from place to place. By 1976, he was with the sixth franchise of his pro career, the Tigers, part of a starting rotation on a hopeless team. He was by this time bracketed and obscured in the baseball encyclopedia by a Dave Roberts from the 1960s and another who as an overall number one draft pick had soared directly into the major leagues in 1972 (the same year, as it happens, that a fourth Dave Roberts was born in Japan—where the first Dave Roberts, no relation, was still playing pro ball—and this fourth Dave Roberts would eventually eclipse all previous players named Dave Roberts by stealing a base). In early May 1976, the Dave Roberts in question experienced arguably his most significant moment in the majors by contracting the flu, which caused him to miss his turn in the rotation, which allowed a Tigers rookie named Mark Fidrych to get his first major league start.
I had a dream last night that I’d left my eleven-month-old son in another room by himself. When I realized that I’d left him unattended I rushed back to the room he was in and found him yanking on a rickety bookcase three times his size. Later in the dream my wife asked me to go outside to check whether I could get into the apartment through a window in our basement, a test to see how easily an intruder could enter. Earlier, in the real world, before I’d started this anxiety-dream sleep, our central air conditioning unit had stopped working, the same one we’d spent thousands of dollars on last summer when my wife was very pregnant.
Last fall my wife quit her job to stay home with our baby, and our savings account is eroding. The money I make as a mistake-hunter—proofreading, copyediting—isn’t enough to cover our bills. Occasionally I make some additional money writing, but not much, especially when weighed against actual time spent writing. Spending time writing is, in financial terms, about as sound a decision as spending time throwing rocks into the sea. The long-endangered notion of writing as a way to make a living or even help make a living is now on the brink of extinction. I know this because my dad, who often sends me links to bleak news items, forwarded me a recent column by Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, who sees a future without professional authors.
Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free. . . . How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.
I recently spent a few weeks researching Mark Fidrych’s 1976 season. I was going to write a book about that beautiful summer and was very excited but then found out another biography of the Tigers 1970s supernova of joy was already well in the works, to be published fairly soon. While two concurrent books on, say, a famed American president or Miley Cyrus might have a chance of succeeding, two books on a baseball player who had one good summer thirty-six years ago would just scuttle both projects or at least the second one, mine, so I pulled the plug.
“What are we going to do?” my wife asked last night in the hot room. She meant about the air conditioning but also everything. I just sat there staring at the floor.
I’ve been working as a mistake-hunter for a long time. I started many years ago, getting occasional temporary gigs through friends. This was back in New York in the 1990s. When my girlfriend and I left New York in 2003, we didn’t have jobs lined up. I got the first bite on the work-hunting front. A publishing company in the Chicago suburbs needed a part-time proofreader. I was shown a cubicle and given some pages. I started hunting for mistakes. I have stuck with the company like a barnacle. Most every weekday since then has been some version of that first day. In the mornings before work, briefly, I go to my desk of bills and baseball cards and try to wander.
There appear to be palm trees in the background of the photo on Dave Roberts’ 1977 card. Maybe there’s a separating body of water just out of sight, and the palm trees are on an island. Maybe I could go to live on that island. I’d read. Baseball games of no consequence would occur nearby.
While researching Mark Fidrych I got sidetracked frequently. I love being sidetracked. It’s better than any fantasy of palm tree island solitude, even. I was looking at old newspapers from 1976 available in the Google news archives and in those newspapers you can scroll around, looking at old advertisements, the news of the day, TV listings. I kept finding traces of attempts to oppose gravity. There was a guy who wanted to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and another guy who tried to fly across the ocean in a hot-air balloon and disappeared. Out beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Skylab was slowly disintegrating. Evel Knievel came out of a brief retirement, jumped some buses in the Kingdome, then apologized for not being spectacular enough, not flying high and far enough. ABC aired a Happy Days rerun of an episode earlier in the season when Fonzie, worried he was losing his cool, jumped fourteen garbage cans on his motorcycle before smashing into a food stand. There was something in the air that year, a deep cultural urge, a need to oppose the unavoidable awareness that everything was falling back down to earth.
My mom told me about Alaska while on a recent visit to see her grandson. She said I spent the afternoons playing in abandoned cars behind the compound, or whatever it was, with the little girl my age whose mother wasn’t around.
Dave Roberts never pitched better than on that spring day in 1970. After relieving Mike Corkins, he recorded 18 outs in a row. In the eighth, he walked Maury Wills and gave up a single to Willie Davis, but then erased the threat with an inning-ending double play and posted a 1-2-3 ninth.
My mom still remembered the name of the girl. Since she told me her name I’ve been carrying it around on my tongue. On the bus to work, staring out at the chain stores. While at work, looking for mistakes. On the bus home, the same. Applebee’s, Best Buy, Jiffy Lube. Diedre.
After a few weeks in Alaska, my mom decided it was too wild, too unstructured, too insecure. My father was still in New Jersey, going to his job, making a paycheck, refusing to stop believing things could work out, that the family could stay together. He turned out to be right, in a way. The family did stay together, for a while anyway, and weirdly. We returned to him, all of us, Tom, too, and all lived together for a couple of years in a house in Hopewell. I’d always thought those years in Hopewell were the peak of the wild living, the experimental open marriage on full display, but the wildest days had been in Alaska.
In Alaska, I crawl over and through the rusted husks of abandoned cars. Elsewhere, the last out of Dave Roberts’ near-perfect relief appearance is a pop-up to the second baseman. The ball seems to hang suspended in the air. Dave Roberts is about to win. The sun seems to hang suspended in the sky. The day is enormous. A motherless little girl clambers along beside me, the world corroding, dangerous, bright. Words are new. Diedre, I say. We are wandering.