(continued from Larry Hardy)
I never made it to Galicia to wander the ghostly grounds of the vanished gas-chambered shtetl thinking tragic historical thoughts about my ancestors, or whatever the fuck I’d been hoping to do. Instead I started seeping back westward not long after having a bleak vision of universal loneliness and alienation in a town in East Germany called Schwerin. I’d been trying to hitchhike farther east than Schwerin, to Berlin, and from there to points even deeper into the grim mysterious regions beyond the recently lifted Iron Curtain. But after standing on the shoulder of a highway in Hamburg for a very long time without even a nibble I had begun silently chanting the mantra of the stranded:
Anywhere is better than here. Anywhere is better than here.
Finally, a car pulled over and the driver said a word I’d never heard: “Schwerin?”
He could have said anything. I got in the car.
At that very moment, late October 1990, Dave Skaggs may have been playing or getting ready to play his last games of professional baseball. According to BR bullpen, Skaggs appeared that year in the Senior Professional Baseball Association. The short-lived winter league, loaded with former stars and journeymen from the Cardboard Gods era, shut its doors in December of 1990, but not before Skaggs and his teammates on the San Bernadino Pride battled their way to a record of 13 and 12.
He hadn’t played in the major leagues for ten years, since 1980 when he appeared in two games for the Baltimore Orioles and 24 games for the California Angels. I don’t know if he played in the minor leagues after that, because baseball cards only show the minor leagues as a prelude, never as an aftermath. The fact that Skaggs was available to limp around for meager pay in a doomed geezer winter league suggests that he probably didn’t instantly leap from his 1981 release by the Seattle Mariners (who had signed him a month earlier but didn’t need him because they already had Terry Bulling) to a spectacularly successful career in some other field. He probably kept playing ball. Perhaps he even stuck around long enough to gradually make his way back down the minor league ladder he’d spent several hard years climbing. Back to Rochester, where he’d toiled in 1976 and part of 1975. Back to Asheville, where he’d toiled in 1974 and part of 1975. Back even earlier and lower, to the team he played for in 1973, five years into his professional career and still a million miles from the majors.
Back to Lodi.
The driver let me off at an exit ramp in Schwerin. He must have pointed me the way to go, but I got confused instantly, and for a very long time I wandered lost in a landscape only slightly more habitable for a pedestrian than the surface of Jupiter. Here’s what I wrote in my notebook the next day:
I was trying to walk to the youth hostel. I took a wrong turn and walked two miles in a nowhere direction. The road was flat and cracked and stretched into afternoon hazy visions of steel industrial plants, the smokestacks breathing streaks of dirt into the sky. The cars that passed were mostly broken down Russian cars with no catalytic converters, so their foul air was noisily blasted in my face until I was light-headed and achy and felt enclosed. The pack was heavy and beginning to dig down into my shoulders. The landscape was gray and barren. Earlier I had walked past a huge Russian Army barracks, a truck of dark-eyed soldiers passing me into its entrance. Soon they would all abandon the hulking stone buildings to go back to their country to starve. I was walking on the road and thinking not only of my own nowhere going but the whole earth wrapped as it is in cracked, nowhere going roads and abandoned useless buildings and towers and potatoes falling and rotting to the ground as millions starve in muddy hovels in the cold. This was the black end. I was saying to myself, “I will go home, I must go home,” and as I said it I thought of the massive half-realized failure of my own life and how I couldn’t speak to anyone ever from shame and how I would lead a mundane, death-surrounded life and never really know home.
If I lost connection somewhere, that implies that somewhere I had connection. If I find myself hoping to take the next train back to where I lived, that implies that, sometime before setting off in 1990 to find my life and finding instead that the whole wide world was Lodi, there once was a place where I lived. I can’t put my finger on any map of where that might be, except to locate personal versions of ghost towns, just as I can’t put words to that connection.
But I know what that connection feels like. It feels like holding a piece of cardboard in my hands and pronouncing the name on the card for the first time, the player brand new to the Cardboard Gods, his name one that by its strange and biting sound alone instantly scored an indelible groove in my 10-year-old brain:
The guarded, menacing face on the 1978 card, his first, fit the name, as did the fading light in the blurred background behind him, dusk coming on in the anonymous nowhere of Dave Skaggs, Skaggs who knows the nowhere well and grips the bat and glares, ready for trouble, for grim toothless tormentors in scars and rags, Skaggs mean and lonely, hopeless and brave. Skaggs never nobody. Skaggs unbowed.
(to be continued)
(Love versus Hate update: Dave Skaggs’ back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)