Archive for the ‘by Josh Wilker’ Category

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Scottie Pippen

April 14, 2015

pippen benchYou Are the Eyes of the World

Two

Sitting on a bench is usually an indication that the world has said No to you, not that you have said No to the world. For a long time I believed my life story was an example of the former, not the latter. My life was out of my hands. I wanted to play, wanted to be a part of things, but it wasn’t happening. This is what I told myself. It’s probably partly true. The other part is that at some point I started saying No to the world.

You can’t say No to the world when you’re a father. Well, you can, but it will cause pain. For example, yesterday I said “fucker” to my son. Perhaps a case could be made that I said it to the room within earshot of my son, that I was just swearing at the world, not at him. However, a case could not be made that, later, I muttered “shut up” to anyone but my son. He is not yet four years old.

What does any of this have to do with Scottie Pippen? Scottie Pippen was good at what he did. He had one particularly bad moment in his career, but it doesn’t deserve to define him. I’m merely poaching that moment to talk about one of the ways in which I tend toward the bench. There are a lot of ways to the bench. Trust me, I know. I’m a benchwarmer. Scottie Pippen took one of the ways in the spring of 1994. He was for that one year, in the absence of the player Larry Bird once referred to as God, the leader of the Bulls. When a big shot needed to be taken in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, Pippen’s coach called for another player to take the shot. There were 1.8 seconds left in the game. Pippen took those 1.8 seconds off. He said No to the godless world. He quit.

What caused me yesterday to say No to the world? I guess I’d have to tell you my whole life story with more honesty than I’ve previously mustered to answer that, but the immediate situation was that my son was having trouble getting to sleep. We have this elaborate, often ineffective, ritual to try to get him to sleep, and while sometimes it works OK, lately it has gone to shit again, and everyone in the house is miserable. I coauthored the whole mess, and yet I’m brimming with resentment about it. My fuse is shorter than ever. I said “fucker” when I was lying down next to my son and he flailed his body and kicked me in the head. Later I muttered “shut up” when he started to ask me a question when I was holding him and singing and dancing. This is part of the elaborate ritual—me holding him and singing and dancing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know that however we’ve gotten to this point, to me dancing around a fairly large young boy as if he were an infant, I won’t help anything by blowing up in anger on him. But my fuse is short. In those moments I want to quit and sit down and not be a part of this anymore.

I know what it feels like to not have the play called for you. That’s how things felt for a long time in my life, and I know that my general reaction to this was to quit. To not even be a part of the action anymore. It became habitual, but it’s a habit I can’t surrender to anymore. I can’t quit now. Life no longer allows it. I’m in the game no matter what. But inside my body, my flesh, there’s that pull toward the bench. I want to sit down. I want to pout and be null and void of my own volition, so say No and watch the world from a withering remove.

To be continued.

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Bill Walton

April 7, 2015

Walton benchedYou Are the Eyes of the World

One

I am sick of worrying over every sentence, every word, and so without stopping, jamming, hoping to find pure play, I am going to write about the greatest moments in sitting on the bench in the history of the world, starting with this moment captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 and burned into my brain forever as the prototypical image of being on the outside looking in or perhaps more accurately being withdrawn from the game, being so far inside as to be removed from that which brings the most joy: connection with others.

Bill Walton dropped off the face of the earth right around the time of this cover and would not resurface for many years, for so long as to seem as if he had disappeared forever, and so for those years when he was altogether gone—actually he was an oft-injured member of the roster of the San Diego Clippers, which is one step beyond being gone—it seemed he was never going to come back. He had been to me, in his free-spirited ways and his joyous enthusiasm and in his untimely removal from the center of the action, a basketball counterpart to Mark Fidrych, who disappeared from the world at around the same time, the late 1970s, the Malaise Years, and as with Fidrych I had a yearning for him to reappear, to rise from his glum remove on the bench and be what he once was.

Fidrych never returned. That’s one difference between the two. The other is that Walton was when healthy among the greatest to ever play his sport, something that could never be claimed for Fidrych, despite his inarguably great rookie season (he deserved the 1976 Cy Young Award). The more complex Walton was not as magnetically likable as Fidrych, but like Fidrych Walton’s magnetism was based in joy. When his faulty body let him he had a volcanic joy for the game he loved, and he channeled that joy into connection with his teammates. Fidrych’s similar compulsion bubbled up outside the crux of the more solitary demands of his game, most notably when he bounded from the mound to shake the hand of a teammate who’d made a nice play; conversely, Walton’s happy need to share the love was woven into the fabric of his game. His greatest gift as an athlete—besides being a nimble, powerful giant—was vision, a gift he used to become the player generally considered to have been the greatest among all centers in setting up a teammate to score.

But how would I even know this? I never once saw him play during his time at UCLA or with the Trailblazers. His talents were entirely word-based and imaginary to me, but perhaps for that reason they were more intimately known to me. I saw him in my mind grabbing a rebound and in that very instant, airborne, locating a streaking teammate far upcourt and hitting him in stride with the perfect court-traversing outlet pass. I saw him exulting, fist raised, as his teammate scored the open lay-up that Walton alone had seen as a possibility.

And so to see this beauty disappear into the slumping misery of one on the bench was rough. Add to this that Walton’s disappearance from the world mirrored not only Mark Fidrych’s but also my own. I’d been a happy kid, laughing, reveling in the back-to-the-land sprawl and mess and joy-dreams of my parents—dreams shared by Walton above all among athletes of his time—but as the wide 1970s narrowed to a new, more constricted decade I edged into an adolescence that looked pretty much exactly—thematically speaking—like this picture of Walton on the bench. I was not connected anymore somehow. I was benched.

To be continued.

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Mario Mendoza

January 24, 2015

Mario MendozaImmortality

5.

The greatest sages from ancient times
Have not shown us life immortal.
What is born must die . . .
-Han Shan

The Chinese poet Han Shan lived over a thousand years ago. No one knows for sure exactly when. He shacked up in the mountains, maybe with a fellow hermit who accompanied him on periodic giggly visits to town, and wrote his poems on rocks, maybe. That’s the lore anyway—if there ever were poems of his on rocks time has smoothed away the words or perhaps turned the rocks themselves to dust. I first read about Han Shan in Dharma Bums, and I hoped to follow in Jack Kerouac’s and Gary Snyder’s footsteps as they followed in the footsteps of Han Shan. I wanted to wade off into some lofty world of mist and visions. I don’t know what my days have ended up amounting to. I don’t carve my poems in rocks or write poems of any kind anymore. Yesterday I worked a long day in a cubicle and then, back at home, taped Buzz Lightyear’s foot back onto his leg. It had fallen off when my son was playing with his action figure from Toy Story. I was able to make it so the toy could still stand up. Work hadn’t exactly made me feel like I was swatting game-winning home runs, so I counted the wobbly new stability of the mass-produced plastic offering as a victory.

***

Mario Mendoza, utility man—everyone knows he’s the man behind the Mendoza Line, right? But he had nothing to do with its creation: it was the doing of teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, cackling over Mendoza’s consistent presence at the bottom of the Sunday newspaper batting average lists, and the doing of George Brett, who heard the term from Paciorek, and Chris Berman, who heard it from Brett and started weaving it into his SportsCenter spiels. We have no power to shape the world; it just takes shape. We have no power to make anything last. Hank Greenberg, the immortal at the beginning of this meditation that I’m now calling to a halt, once racked up 103 RBI by the all-star break. This is two more RBI than Mario Mendoza got in his entire career. And yet there’s a chance the Mendoza Line will outlast Greenberg. Or at any rate it’s the same. Language, plaques: everything in one way or another is a random snaring of language bound to disassemble.

***

I’m rereading Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers. He died a few days ago. I heard an old radio interview with him a day or two after he passed away, and he was talking about the time he and his friends in the Merry Pranksters met the Beats. He said Jack Kerouac was bitter that Neal Cassady, now the speed-addled bus driver of the Merry Prankster’s Furthur bus, was no longer at Kerouac’s side but with this younger crowd. Kerouac, Stone observed, was just generally bitter. Bitter and jealous. He was still handsome at that point, Stone said, but within a year or so his disease, alcoholism, would wreck his fine facial structure, puffing it into a bulbous mess, an attack on the charismatic youthful myth of the man even more severe somehow than when the next stage of his ravaging illness took hold and ended his life. Anyway, it’s a great novel, Dog Soldiers, I mean. In it the promise of the sixties has gone the way of Jack Kerouac’s good looks—everything’s in bitter, smoldering wreckage. The last great novel I’d read before picking up Dog Soldiers again was Jonathan Miles’s 2014 book Want Not, which features a subplot about a group of intellectuals and engineers and specialists from various fields coming together in a project devoted to communicating the danger of toxic waste to future civilizations. The problem the group faces is that toxic waste will, in the estimation of scientists and linguists, outlast any current language. Languages deteriorate and eventually vanish altogether: this seems to be an unavoidable universal rule. Write your words into the internet ether or carve them into rocks and it’s the same. They’ll erode into nothing. No one will understand whatever it was you were trying to say. The linguists in Want Not (whose thoughts reflect linguistic theory that Jonathan Miles studied in researching the book) are certain that even the most basic pictographs will be unable to keep people 10,000 years in the future from blundering past all of our signage and into a murderous cache of our toxic aftermath.

***

For a little while when I was a young man I had a job on the graveyard shift loading trucks at the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. I was living in the East Village, miles from the job, but for some reason I used to walk to work, several miles in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened to me until one night when I was crossing a street on Third Avenue a few blocks south of 42nd Street. It was around two in the morning and there weren’t any other pedestrians around. I was struck by a car. The driver was hurrying to make a left turn before the yellow light changed to red and he didn’t see me crossing with the light. He braked when he saw me but not in time to avoid impact. I was scooped up onto the hood and thrown to the pavement.

The driver opened the door of his car and got one foot out. He was a doughy young Hispanic guy. He was scared.

“Are you OK?” the driver said.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said. You will always want this to be the truth. Amazingly, it wasn’t that far from the truth. I got to my feet.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I continued on to work. My jeans had a rip in them and were slightly bloody. I performed a version of the task that I’ll be performing my whole life in one way or another, job after job, if I’m lucky enough to stay employed. Boxes came down the conveyer belt, and I sorted them by address into the proper shelves in one of four trucks in my station. During my fifteen minute break I read Dante. I don’t know which part of the Divine Comedy I was on. It doesn’t matter—I only remember one thing from the whole trilogy, which I read in its entirety in fifteen minute breaks from loading trucks: paradise is frightening, stripped of fallible humanity and mistakes. Paradise is lifeless.

***

Mario Mendoza played his twelve final major league games the year this card came out, 1982, and got his last seventeen at-bats, connecting for just two hits. He was released in July with a .118 average for the year, the farthest he’d ever landed below “his” line—a .200 batting average—at a season’s end. His career average fixed itself quite clearly above the Mendoza Line at .215, which is somehow more dispiriting than if he’d somehow lasted as long as he did—nearly a decade—with an average below his own line. I’ve spent my life marveling at shit like the Mendoza Line. That to me is the beautiful stuff, a way to capture the ineffable mediocrity of most of this short rude gift we’re given, this life.

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Terry Francona

January 18, 2015

Terry FranconaImmortality

4.

What do you do when life reveals itself as the opposite of immortality? The dream of living forever falls away and you’re left in the mortal position shown here. A former number 1 draft pick edging into the marginal wanderings of the journeyman lunges with his front foot but holds his hands back. Is it just me or does he seemed to be fooled, guessing again? He might watch the pitch go by, perhaps for a mocking strike, or he might flick at it with his wrists, no power, no significant connection ensuing, no sweet momentary ceasing of the guessing and second-guessing of the little grasping mind, the babble inhabiting our finite days.

Some mirages of promise shimmer on the back of this card, a .321 batting average in one partial season, a .346 mark in another. At the bottom, just below the respectable .286 lifetime average and the contrastingly tepid power numbers (just 9 home runs in over a thousand at-bats, a .367 slugging percentage), there’s one line of text in the place where career highlights might have gone: “Terry and his wife are the parents of one son.”

My own life turned three and a half years ago with the birth of my first son. This is the spot where you might expect to hear a testimonial about how my life has turned for the better with his arrival and the arrival of his brother three years later, how their presence has imbued my days with more meaning and purpose. This is true, certainly, but there’s also this: since I became a parent I’ve lost any touch I ever had at anything. You name it: friendship, civility, washing the dishes. The cupboard is full of plates smeared with soap and bits of food. On my desk is a list of people to thank that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what I was supposed to thank them for, and another list of writing ideas that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what each list entry means.

My days? I rush, fume, mope, guess, worry, lunge, repeat. More generally, I imagine my imperfections filtering down to my kids. It’s inevitable, their pure swing sure to be marred in my care. I also see that I’m here for them and that at some point I won’t be. When I wasn’t here for anyone in particular, it was easier to imagine this just sort of continuing the way it always had indefinitely, immortality some kind of endless narrative digression.

For a long time, during my former life of unending digression, I often dreamed of statues. Win the World Series, I said, just once. Just win it once and there will be statues in celebration forever. I don’t know why this held such an appeal for me. My life of perpetual digression was not without suffering, and I suppose dreaming of some permanent victory served as a kind of salve.

It happened. The journeyman shown here led the way, and it was all I could have ever asked for, but then life went on. He won another World Series, but somehow even that helped break the spell of immortality, or contributed to it breaking, along with his departure after a historically severe collapse the year my first son arrived. Now he’s elsewhere, a mortal, a guy on my list to thank if I ever get around to it.

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Tim Raines

January 12, 2015

Tim RainesImmortality

3.

We’re all dreaming. Some dream with numbers, others with stories, others still with the belief in some kind of unassailable purity that never existed. I dream with whatever joys and wants and traumas pounded my psyche into its shape in my childhood. I dream with baseball cards.

That’s how baseball first came to me, or at least the part of baseball that served as the fantastical counterpart to the baseball I flung my imperfect self into on little league fields and the schoolyard and my rutted dirt driveway. Certain dreams that came to me through the cards were stronger than others, making me feel like I was touching the opposite of my transitory halting world. Some cards sang. Here was greatness advancing unashamed.

The photo on the front of this card feeds into a dream of greatness, capturing a coiled, bristling image of possibilities and power. Maybe the figure shown has just hit a ball that will be run down by an outfielder, as his eyes seem to be suggesting that the ball he’s just struck is arcing high into the sky. But his body has no surrender in it, not yet, and so it still seems as if the ball might hit a gap or even reach an outfield wall. Maybe it will even hit a seam or a bolt in the wall and ricochet acutely, opening the moment to its outer limits, every single base on the diamond, everything, in reach of this runner.

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Hank Greenberg

January 2, 2015

Hank GreenbergImmortality

1.

Hank Greenberg was born on New Year’s Day 1911, 104 years ago yesterday. People have in rare occasions lived that long, but Hank Greenberg wasn’t one of them. He died in September 1986, a few weeks shy of the night when Mookie Wilson hit a groundball up the first base line toward Hank Greenberg’s fellow first baseman Bill Buckner. Bill Buckner played 22 years in the majors and went to an All-Star game and won a batting crown, but one moment will outlive all others for him, and will almost surely outlive him too.

By contrast Hank Greenberg had one of the shortest careers of anyone in the Hall of Fame, logging just seven seasons with more than 500 at bats. He lost most of one year, 1936, to injury, and lost three full seasons and large chunks of two others to World War II. Had his playing career not overlapped with the war, he could have easily flirted with 500 home runs, which for much of baseball history—but no longer; now it’s a conditional number almost as prone to prompt suspicion as admiration, let alone hallowing—has been a mark guaranteeing immortality.

Should I put quotes around that last word? It’s a strange word to use. But it’s bandied about in sports discussions, especially with baseball, which is perhaps one of the reasons why discussions about who should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame get so heated. Immortality is at stake. Everything dies; what survives?

The back of this card was not given an effective quality assurance check at the production stage—the block of text beneath Hank Greenberg’s statistics is cut off. The last line reads, “One of his top career thrills was a pennant-clinching grand slam home run against the Browns in the ninth inning of the final game of the 1945” (no end punctuation, no additional text). I know about this moment because of the headline for the 1945 season wrap-up in the Neft and Cohen baseball encyclopedia that I virtually memorized as a child: “Greenberg’s Grand Return.” It is probably the headline most indelibly marked in my memory. I came to understand the notion of time and civilization through that encyclopedia. I thought of the encyclopedia itself as immortal, but a few years ago, perhaps because of all the similar information now available on the internet for free, that encyclopedia was discontinued.

I wonder about the person responsible for the quality of this baseball card, the person, in other words, who didn’t notice that the last line of text was cut off. He or she was probably busy, thinking of other things. I wonder about the two figures lurking in the dugout on this card. You can barely see them, just two blurs for faces, white collars. The rest is already gone.

We’re like these peripheral figures hovering in and around the front and back of a baseball card, our lives a blur, a series of oversights. We want to believe in something towering forever above this.

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Muggsy Allenson

July 28, 2014

muggsy

Muggsy Allenson crops up in an essay I wrote today on Just a Bit Outside, but only in passing, as a way to highlight that I never quite get to anything anymore. This theme can also be seen in the dates on the “recent” posts on this site. I’ve had my hands full with two very young kids, plus work, plus another book. My baseball cards have been sitting there, waiting for me, just as they did for many years between the end of childhood and when I first started putting words to them, about fifteen years ago now, in notebooks in a cabin in the woods.

Anyway, if you’re here for the first time by way of the Just a Bit Outside piece, please have a look around the archives (players are listed by team along the right hand sidebar), and please leave a comment under any card or player you have a story about. I’m hoping the conversation here goes on and on, even if I have times when I can’t add much to it. I can tell you that the cards are always talking to me.

This one talks to me with its gray vagueness. I can barely make anyone out except for a few general observations, such as that there were an abundance of guys this year—1981—who looked like varying versions of Dick Drago. Drago himself is in there somewhere, but I couldn’t say for sure where. I’m pretty sure I can make out Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn in the first row, over to the right. This is ironic given that by the time the 1981 season got underway they were gone, leaving a much grayer, vaguer team in its wake.

The one player I can make out for sure is Muggsy Allenson. He’s in the middle row, third figure from the right.

If you search “Muggsy Allenson” on google, one of the first few links to come up is to a piece of dialogue in my book about growing up through baseball cards:

“Muggsy Allenson,” I said glumly.

In that passage in the book I’m talking to my brother about the early 1980s Red Sox. One name epitomized that era for me, obviously. I’ve always painted that passage as a glum one, a comedown, the reduced possibilities represented by the great gap between the strapping and handsome Carlton Fisk and his squat, limited replacement, Muggsy Allenson. But life just changes. No reason to wail about it.

And in fact, one of my very favorite baseball memories of all was authored by Muggsy Allenson. This is what I was verging on in the piece on Just a Bit Outside but could never get to. I’m talking about the late-summer game in 1982 that went into extra innings. The Red Sox loaded the bases with two outs, and Muggsy Allenson came to the plate. My brother and I were watching. We looked at Muggsy Allenson and we had no hope. He would finish that year hitting .205. But, in a move that predated by several years the fictional heroics of Major League’s Jake Taylor, Muggsy laid down a surprise bunt. Oh to see Muggsy beating out the throw on that bunt on his stumpy legs. We didn’t even cheer, just laughed.

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