Archive for the ‘Boston Red Sox’ Category

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reasons

October 31, 2013

we wonI intended for this photo to be right side up in this fucking post. I also intended before starting to write the post to Google the words “Sweet Jane” but I hadn’t slept much and was up early and had just named a document, the document used to create these words, “Reasons,” short for “Reasons to Live” or “Reasons not to Bail,” so instead of “Sweet Jane” I typed in “reasons” and the search window suggested these four phrases, apparently the top searches that start with the word reasons:

reasons my son is crying
reasons for missed period
reasons for divorce
reasons why I love you

I’m able to find the first one amusing only because at the moment my son is asleep and so is not crying. He has been around for a little over two years and he cries a lot, often for reasons I can’t understand and he can’t explain. This ongoing situation, my inability to help or even understand my own son when he’s suffering, calls to mind a line in Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson:

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

There’s a certain undefeatable core of estrangement in this life. You can feel it as the agitation behind each of the top four internet searches for reasons. How can I understand this person who came from me? How can I deal with a new needful life on the way? How can I understand a love that seems to be crumbling? How can I understand love at all?

How can we ever be anything but alone? I’m thinking of a line from a song, but not the one I set out to search for this morning: “I hate the quiet places/that cause the smallest taste of what will be.” That’s a line from “Candy Says,” by Lou Reed, who also supplied the lyrics to the song I wanted to search for today and also the song that provided the epigraph and title for Jesus’ Son. He passed away earlier this week, right when the Red Sox were in the middle of battling toward a win in the World Series, and so his songs of quiet places and loss and perversion, of life turned upside down and inside out, have been hovering eerily all around the loud bearded stomp toward triumph.

His songs make me happy. It’s hard to explain why. Easier to understand winning. The win by the Red Sox made me happy. My son was awake and naked, and when he saw the players jumping around on one another after the last out, he wanted to do it, too, so the two of us did a two-man version of the jumping up and down victory scrum. His nudity reminded me of a short, barrel-chested guy I met with my friend Pete while we were at a New York Rangers game way back in the early 1990s. It was between periods. This was before the Rangers had broken through to win the Stanley Cup in 1994, so the team was the longest suffering NHL squad.

“What will you do if the Rangers finally win?” Pete asked him. He considered it for a moment, or maybe he had the answer already set in his mind. I can’t remember anymore.

“Run naked and put up a sign,” he said.

You want to return to the days when you could run naked, I guess. You want to win, to feel all the limitations that have been piling up on you your whole life long to vanish in the winning.

And they do, they really do, for a second. The photo at the top of this page hangs over my desk (right side up). I sit at my desk every morning and write. What are my reasons? I am trying to hold on to something. I am trying to run naked. I am trying to put up a sign. Anyway, the picture hangs over my desk as a happy reminder, a reminder of happiness, and of connection. It was taken in Boston the day the Red Sox celebrated their 2004 World Series title with a duckboat parade. My brother had decked out his car as “the Yazmobile.” He came from Brooklyn and I came from Chicago. We’d been waiting for that parade our whole life.

Life in general is not in synch with such moments of connection and celebration.

“Some people like us we gotta work,” is how Lou Reed puts it in the song I still have yet to Google. Why did I want to Google “Sweet Jane”? Do I really think I’ll find the answer to why the song, from its first chord, always flicks some switch in my head that turns life from work to something else entirely?

I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. This last fucking paragraph is what my work is, more or less. Do you notice that it is in a different fucking font? I don’t know why it pasted this way into wordpress from my Word document. There doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent fix. I could spend a long time figuring it out, but I have to go to work and figure similar things out, one after the other, little stupid fucking problems that are beyond me. Like the upside down photo at the top of the page. I took it right side up, and sent it from my phone to my email right side up, and when it appeared on my computer upside down I used a program to rotate it back right side up, but then when I uploaded it to this post it was upside down again. I do not understand all the many tiny ways things go wrong and I am lashed to them every goddamn day. I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. No running naked. Unless you count these words written in a hurry beneath a photo of connection and joy, a photo I can’t seem to control. I can’t believe the win I always wished for happened once, and then again, and now three times. I’m happy about it and so not to be trusted. So trust someone who somehow imbued the lines “feel sick and dirty/more dead than alive” with an attachment to suffering life so stubborn as to be a kind of perverse, swinging joy. Trust Lou Reed, transformer of loss, when he sneers at anyone who says life is just to die.

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Add to Dictionary

October 20, 2013

rejubilation

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Luis Tiant

June 12, 2012

I spent some time recently writing an essay on Luis Tiant for a forthcoming compilation. It was impossible. I always feel like I fail whenever I try to write about something I really love. There is too much to say, so whatever ends up getting onto the page feels like a reduction, a diminishment, a mistake.

I have to balance my writing—well, balance is the wrong word. I have to jam my writing life into the rest of my life, going to and from work, working at a job where I am responsible for locating and correcting mistakes, looking after my baby, a wobbly lurching being who makes me want to maim myself when I make a mistake and allow him to fall down and bang his head. I try to allow the writing to be the one place where mistakes are okay. That is why I’m writing right now, beyond the end of my work on the Luis Tiant essay. By the way, I just misspelled Tiant and went back and corrected it, so I’m full of shit on my open invitation for mistakes and some kind of unreachable freedom. The way I keep misspelling Tiant is Taint, which is kind of funny. Taint is kind of like a mistake, meaning a flaw in something. Also it means the part between your asshole and your genitals, which I learned, perhaps erroneously, derives from the idea that it “t’aint one thing and t’aint the other.” My life is spent in the taint, not quite here and not quite there but definitely somewhere sort of malodorous and dank.

Now, what was I trying to say? Oh yeah, love and impossible words. Tiant: I will never say everything I want to about him, but I did want to point out that this button contains a taint, not just the badly centered name and team box near the bottom but, of course, the misspelling of the team name: “Red Soxs.” How the fuck did this occur? It makes me wonder who pumped out these buttons.

The photo is from just a little before the dawn of my fandom, as I only remember Luis Tiant when he had his fu manchu. He was the first to sport the fu Manchu, wasn’t he? He doesn’t get enough credit for this.

I remember going to Fenway Park as a kid. He ruled that place, in some ways even more than Yaz. I’ve written about Yaz, and about seeing the green of Fenway Park for the first time. I never have gotten it all down in words though. For example, I was in bliss even walking to the park. There would be souvenir stands selling shit like this, painters caps and pennants and buttons with the faces of players on them. Everything was shining in the lights. This was to me as a verdant heath was to Wordsworth or something. But I can’t tell you about it. I mean I can’t find the right words. I can only make one mistake after another.

That was one of my failed plans for the Tiant essay I just finished, that it would be organized around the Zen notion of shoshaku joshaku, first coined by Japanese master Dogen and brought to my attention years ago in the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The phrase means “one continuous mistake.” I wanted to describe Luis Tiant’s unorthodox and unforgettable pitching delivery in those terms, everything about it wrong but somehow beautiful and more than that somehow, hitches and pauses and twitches and all, continuous, and his career, too, with his exile and his injuries and his releases and his comebacks, one continuous motion, too, Tiant untainted by surrendering to the life of one continuous mistake, the mistakes not the point of this all but rather the will to continue. This was the point of these words, and all my words, and all my mistakes: continue.

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Win Remmerswaal

April 13, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

The Other Day

The other day, I came to. I looked around, blinking. I was in a supermarket. This kind of thing is happening more. How did I get here? Where have I been? I used to assume my life was an unbroken chronological line through time, as if a baseball card with my likeness could list every one of my seasons and where I was and how I did. It’s possible this line was never more than a powerful fiction, and even if it ever did exist it doesn’t anymore. Moments flash in and out, past, present, jumbled, strewn. Everything is the other day. It may have gone this way anyway, but the arrival a few months ago of my son accelerated the scrambling of the back of my card. I make lists now to try to keep my shit together. This is how I came to in the supermarket. I was reaching into the pocket of my windbreaker for a list to see why I had ended up in the supermarket. I pulled out a toy, a little jingly giraffe. I checked the other pocket and pulled out a baseball card.

***

When I was a kid I believed, above all, in a line through time, along which losing could change to winning. The idea of winning, winning it all, was distant, millennial, all-encompassing, all-powerful. Just thinking about it was enough to bring tears of joy. The team I loved came tantalizingly close to winning, year after year, but in the end always lost, undone by the limited abilities of the pitching staff. I spent a lot of time staring at the cards of the superstar sluggers on the team I loved—Yaz, Rice, Fisk—but my waiting and hoping for change centered not on the cards but on a perusal of names of pitchers next to small black-and-white pictures in the back of the team yearbook, the names of those not yet arrived, not yet failed. The prospects. I was drawn to those names. I studied them hoping to find the thing lacking, the True Ace. Things were one way, but I wanted to believe things could change.

***

The other day, a coworker (and fellow blogger) stopped by my cubicle to show me a stack of 1980s commons he’d found for next to nothing at a tag sale. He leaned on the corner of the pasteboard entryway to my cubicle as I flipped through the stack, the two of us mocking the mulleted, the bespectacled, the hapless, the fat. I don’t remember how the moment ended. All but one of the cards remains on my desk, cluttering up my jumble of project schedules and calendars and daily to-do lists. I try to keep myself fastened to a line through time. I lose that grip. I lose beginnings and endings. I come to in supermarkets, one hand holding a toy, the other holding Win Remmerswaal.

***

Win Remmerswaal was the most memorable of the young pitchers who existed solely as names in the back of the team yearbooks I read as a child. I never saw him pitch and don’t remember noticing him registering in a box score. He appeared in only 22 major league games. But I do remember the name. The first name could not be simpler, a distillation of everything life was supposed to be aiming toward, clean and clear as an ideal: Win. The second name meandered, complex, unpronounceable but impossible to resist trying to pronounce; it beckoned, a magic spell if said correctly, everything about it a tangle of knowable and unknowable, remembering and swaying and wailing and All, the opposite of an ideal, the dream-drunk wooze of real: Remmerswaal. Who was he? Where was he? When would he arrive to bring change?

***

The other day, I was watching TV for a few minutes. I used to watch TV for hours, cooking my many daily anxieties to a jittery crisp, but then the baby came. There’s always something to do now, up until a few minutes before nightly, ragged unconsciousness sets in, and in those few minutes I generally watch TV for old time’s sake. An ad for a casino came on. The gist was that for some, second place was okay, but for this casino only first place was acceptable. I didn’t want to waste my few minutes of TV watching a commercial, so I flipped around a little. There was a game show featuring people with weight problems trying to defeat other people with weight problems. I kept flipping. There was another game show featuring women in evening gowns trying to defeat other women in evening gowns. I went back to the first channel, but the casino ad was still wrapping up, hammering home the point that second place is no place at all. Images of glamorous people floating toward slot machines and gaming tables scrolled. I’ve been to a few casinos over the course of my life—they are devoid of glamour, cathedrals of loss. But they’re crowded night and day. Everyone believes flaws and limitations can be shed, change can occur. You will be lifted up out of yourself to some idealized version of you, free of your pocked humanity. Everyone wants to win.

***

The back of Win Remmerswaal’s 1981 card shows his stats in 22 games, the entirety of the pitcher’s brief major league career, along with all but one last gasp of his minor league career. The litany of names down the left column of his table of stats lends apt accompaniment to the dim, featureless moment on the front. Winter Haven, Winter Haven, Bristol, Bristol, Pawtucket, Pawtucket, Pawtucket. Red Sox. Pawtucket. Red Sox. And so here he is, representing the last line in the chant of his faltering ascension, Giacometti thin, a presence in the big leagues but only for a moment. Soon he’ll dissolve back into the blur.

***

The other day, I sat my son down on a Fenway Park bedspread on the floor and handed him some toys. He was at that moment in a phase of notable stability, able to sit up on his own but not yet able to crawl. After a few moments I edged away to check one of my baseball books for Win Remmerswaal stories. There wasn’t much about him in the big book I pulled from the shelf, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, so I started leafing through the book aimlessly, or maybe you could say playfully, no real goal in mind, drifting, curious. My son, drawn to the sound of flipping pages, pitched forward into his stomach. The encyclopedia was on the floor between us. He began writhing and wrenching his little body in such a way that he moved crookedly, haltingly forward. He’d never done this before. I pulled the book a little farther away. He kept moving toward it. I edged away and away until I’d made it to the other side of the room. He kept coming, wanting to grab and tear at the pages of my book about baseball, something so relentless in his efforts that when I told my wife about it we ended up talking about the latter moments of The Terminator, when the android played up to that point by Arnold Schwarzenegger has been stripped to nothing but metal and crawling, unceasing will.

***

Win Remmerswaal had a lot of talent. “Remmersmell, or whatever his name is,” said Reggie Jackson in 1980, “has the best arm of anyone on that staff.” He also had a lot of will. Before him, no European-raised player had ever made it to the major leagues. To get to the major leaguers from anywhere, you need talent and will, a truism no truer than when that anywhere is, in major league baseball terms, a relative nowhere. What Win Remmerswaal had in addition to talent and will was an uncommon connection to the thing that precedes talent and will. He played. In the minor league stop where he lasted the longest, Pawtucket, he became known and loved for his offbeat behavior and learned curiosities and wanderings and absences. He wanted to win and not lose, but he also wrote “win” on one shoe and “lose” on the other and, according to teammate John Tudor, quoted in an excellent biography of Remmerswaal on the SABR bio site, “he’d hop off on whichever foot happened that day.” Remmerswaal wanted to win and not lose, but during one road trip, his team changed planes in Washington, D.C., and he disappeared. He was gone for several days. On his reappearance he gave team owner Ben Mondor a box of cigars and explained, “I realized that I was in the nation’s capital, and that I may never see it again. So I decided to stay for a few days and look around.” He wanted to win and not lose but while his teammates attempted to narrow their focus only to winning and not losing and maybe some downtime painkilling swigs of beer or religion, Remmerswaal read Sartre, who once opined that “the genuine poet … is certain of the total defeat of the human enterprise and arranges to fail in his own life in order to bear witness, by his individual defeat, to human defeat in general.”

***

The other day, I gave up trying to write about Win Remmerswaal. I had been at it for some time, failing. The dour, fearful strain in my voice, the part of me that when I write is like a mediocre guitar player (which, as it happens, I am) playing the same tired blues lick over and over, unable to break through to some new way of feeling, is tempted to present his story as evidence that life only dissolves. He never hooked on with any permanence in the majors, never completely engaged the talent he was blessed with, blithely squandered his chances, meandered onward, out of the game. Several long, hard years followed, leading directly or indirectly to him suffering a debilitating stroke and falling into a coma in 1997. Wanting to know more about what happened next to Win Remmerswaal, I right-clicked the “translate to English” option on a feature on him at a Dutch website:

When, after a few weeks awoke, his brains and nervous system so badly damaged that it for the rest of his life in a wheelchair is designated to be fed and limited him to communicate falls.

***

My son now moves toward what he wants. Words will follow. He doesn’t know any yet. He’ll learn the word win. It’s a word that signifies a coming together. I’ll try to teach him the opposite of that word too, which is not lose but remmerswaal. That word, if it were a word, would signify entropic unraveling. It’s a middle-aged man blinking to awareness in the aisles of a supermarket, a toy in one hand, a baseball card in the other. It’s the spiral of stars in the sky. It’s a middle-aged man surrendering his grip on an unbroken line through the years to hold something better. It’s you, my boy; it’s love. And it’s Remmerswaal himself, in a nursing home undone, but who just the other day was in the big leagues. Just the other day he was coming to a set position and looking for his sign. Just the other day, close enough to touch, to study like a list, he begins.

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Dave Sisler

February 26, 2012

Tour Guide

Pitcher and Sky #2

The primary focus of this tour is a small unofficial series of baseball cards within the 1976 series of Topps baseball cards. We have seen the first of these cards already, featuring Alan Foster, but before proceeding to the next in the series let’s pause for a moment and consider a card from nearly two decades earlier, the 1957 card of Dave Sisler. Note the profound similarity of pose. The artistic mind behind the Alan Foster card did not invent the arms upraised pose. Essentially, there’s nothing new under the sun. What do you do with the burden of history? What do you do with limitations?

My mother’s study of Honoré Daumier focused on a series of his work titled Histoire Ancienne. It was comprised of caricatures that lampooned political injustices and cultural pomposities while puncturing the overbearing artistic orthodoxy of his day, namely the solemn, humorless neoclassicism reflected most notably in the work of Jacque-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. David and Ingres were the acknowledged masters looming over Daumier’s world, but instead of aping their painstaking reinterpretation of classical art he crossed the tracks, as it were, to work the “low art” side of town, using the symbolism of neoclassicism—the classical lexicon of heroes and gods—in new ways, heroes and gods pocked and elongated, stooped and frail, perverse with entirely human need. In lesser hands, the work would have been merely the stuff of transiently hilarious vaudevillian schtick, but Daumier was a master craftsman and his work has undeniable, irrepressible life in it. It swings. He wasn’t the only artist producing what my mom identifies as “classical parody,” but the work of the other satirists of his time is stiff and forgettable compared to Daumier’s. This is where so-called “low art” rises to the equal of anything in the realm of “high art”: it has undeniable lasting life, transforming the seemingly transitory nature of its one-off gag-work into a significant turning in the history of art. I guess I’m trying to approach the slippery unapproachable subject of irony.

Irony, in art, has to swing to exist. In the sense that I am using the word irony, there is an awareness, so pronounced as to be painful, of what has come before, an addressing of that burdensome infinite prelude, and in works of true ironic genius a toppling of it. Maybe music can be a way of illustrating my idea on this. Consider the Kingston Trio, that folk group that rode a general interest in folk music to massive popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the Kingston Trio was not venturing into the realm of irony. The group’s orthodox approach to old folk music was similar in some ways to the way Ingres and David solemnly channeled their interpretation of classical art. By contrast, the playful, unorthodox, eventually electrified and amplified (and—by orthodox folkies—vilified) hijacking of folk forms by a young interloper born as Robert Zimmerman: now that was fucking Irony. Go a little later in music history, the mid-1970s, and compare, say, Boston or Styx to The Ramones. On one hand, the short history of rock was ossified in slick unreflective arena acrobatics; on the other hand, four otherwise useless hooligans channeled with ape-man simplicity and focus—and consciously embraced the bungling of, the transfiguring of—the sheer ecstasy of the short, sweet pop song. Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy. Hallelujah irony.

Which brings us back to this Dick Sisler card, or more specifically the reckoning of it by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. Anything I write about a baseball card, anything anyone ever writes about a baseball card, does so in the shadow of that book. It appeared in 1973 and though it has over the years attracted a cult following I believe it’s underappreciated. It seems at first glance to be a product of so-called “low art,” a jauntily cobbled together collection of baseball cards from the 1950s and 1960s accompanied by the authors’ brief descriptions of the cards. As those who have fallen in love with the book know, these descriptions are poignant, hilarious, eye-opening, and as narcotically enjoyable as the world’s greatest piece of bubble gum. Beyond the sum of its parts, however, there is in the book something altogether new. Though the sardonic, leveling gaze of the authors was not unknown in other parts of the fragmenting culture of the early 1970s, the book was among the first—and was the most hilarious and therefore effective—to puncture the long-prevailing classicism of baseball writing. Even as recently as the all-encompassing cultural hagiography of Mickey Mantle (more to come on this), baseball writing and baseball imagery was most commonly a hallowing of othwerworldy abilities and of the worship of these abilities and of boyhood itself, where this worship was the strongest. Boyd and Harris used the cards of their youth to level and to decimate and to puncture and—in brand new ways—to praise, to swing in a way baseball writing hadn’t swung before. I’ve read the book many times and it still makes me laugh.

The authors mourn for the lot of Dave Sisler, who in a way is like all of us, burdened by history. Sisler was the son of a Hall of Famer and the brother of a pennant-winning hero. “Do you imagine,” the authors write, “that there were ever fifteen seconds during the waking existence of Dave Sisler that he was ever able to forget these facts?” The authors don’t comment on the arms upraised pose of Dave Sisler—a pose repeated throughout baseball history, as if it were the symbol for the inescapable shackling of history itself, one pitcher after another locked into a handcuff-ready surrender, year after year after year—but they do turn their gaze to the Dick Sisler offering from the exhibit that haunted and exalted their childhood:

Wouldn’t he have been happier as a lawyer or a clamdigger or something along that line? He must have known that no matter how good he was he was never going to be good enough. He seemed bright, too. He graduated from Princeton, wore glasses, and was very analytical in postgame interviews. Look at his face in the card—serious, intelligent, taut—the face of an early suicide.

This was not how people wrote about baseball players. It’s nearly forty years since the words were written and I’m still fucking laughing.

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Tim Wakefield

February 18, 2012

This morning I got up at 5 as usual, even though it’s Saturday. The days don’t open out wide like they used to, so if I want to write I have to get up early every day and get to it. But the baby was crying and his mother had been up most of the night with him. I took him with me so she could get a little sleep. I played with him,  jiggled him, rocked him in his rocker while I shoveled down some oatmeal. After a while, he started rubbing his eyes, his sign that he’s getting tired, and I started rocking and shushing him back toward sleep. It took a while. Soon enough I was sweating. It’s work. But the whole process is most difficult at its gentlest moment, when I try to lay him back down in the little swing he sleeps in. You have to lay him down tenderly, let go tenderly. No straining effort, no clumsiness, no tricks. No spin. Release him to float on breezes. Do it wrong, he wakes.

You spend your whole life waking. As a kid I woke to baseball and to stories and to hopes. I woke to Dewey and Jim Ed and Yaz. Years went by. I woke to a dream of being a writer, and soon after that I started waking to what work is.

I’m thinking specifically of 1992, when I was waking to the failure of my first novel to be sold, waking to the impossibility that it would deliver me somehow to a realm where writing could be my work. That year I started working steadily at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan. You want to eat you got to work, one way or another. I put in the hours. Save for the occasional scary moments when teams of teenage shoplifters wilded through the aisles, it wasn’t a bad job, and there were good people there, but all in all it wasn’t exactly a life of leaping from glory to glory. There were long slow moments of nothing at all, a lot of them. I read the box scores when there were no customers. I began to notice a rookie from nowhere on a roll. And he was a knuckleballer! The idea of it was like a message from my childhood, off in the distance, a little Fidrychian birdcall.

It seemed this knuckleballer in Pittsburgh disappeared as quickly as he’d arrived. I kept working at the store for years until one day when a particularly confrontational shoplifting incident made me feel like some vital plug inside me had been pulled. The next day I talked to my boss, Morty

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told him.

“You’re going to have a tough life, Joshua,” he said, gently. “Backing down when things are tough. It’s no good.”

Morty knew what work is. He’d been in combat in World War II. He’d seen a handbag manufacturing business his father had built and passed on to him sputter due to government regulations; he’d then started up another business, a liquor store, only to have it burn down; he’d started again, with the store we were sitting in the back of. He’d seen things get tough and had hung in there.

I don’t think I said anything in response to his advice. The conversation kept playing in my mind long beyond that moment, however, and I began to revise my own part in it.

“But this is not my fight, Morty,” I replied to him in the revised version of the conversation. “Getting shot by fucking teenagers over a bottle of Alizé?”

“Well, then,” Morty would say. “What is your fight?”

This conversation played most frequently in my mind the summer after it actually happened. It was the summer of 1995, and after quitting my job I’d gone back to Vermont to try to write another novel. This is my fight, I kept trying to tell myself. This is what work is, I kept saying. But the internal monologue soon became strained and hysterical. I was gripping the ball way too tightly. Every day I went to a nearby college library and stared at my notebook until I wanted to take my pen and stab my eyes out. I still have the notebook from that summer and it will be exhibit A in the defense’s insanity plea case whenever I finally snap. After failing to write anything in the notebook except dire raging threats against myself, I would then move to the part of the library where they kept the newspapers on those long paper rods. There is something oddly humiliating about reading a newspaper on one of those rods. Really it was during those rod-paper moments when I came to realize that I hadn’t yet come close to waking to what work is.

I also noticed while flipping the pages of the rod-gripped news that the former rookie sensation from 1992 had resurfaced, and not only that but had reappeared on my favorite team, and he was doing well, his improbable comeback the key to the Red Sox division title that year. By the time the Red Sox were quickly bounced out of the playoffs I was back in New York and back at work at the liquor store. The years went on. The liquor store job gave way to other jobs. You spend your whole life waking, but you also spend your whole life drifting into various kinds of sleeps. The main goal of my life was to write, to make that my work, and in some ways I did, producing nonfiction books for young readers that amounted to the equivalent of a few weeks of salary at the liquor store. But all along I had this sense that real work was not getting done, that I hadn’t yet quite woken to it.

Tim Wakefield traveled along with me through those years. I liked that my team had a knuckleballer, but the player who would gradually become an all-time personal favorite to rival my childhood idol, Yaz, did so out of a kind of barely noticed constancy. He was always there. I began noticing that more often than was likely he’d be the starting pitcher whenever I’d make it to the game. He even followed me around the country. In 1999, I caught a game in Oakland, and there was Wake. In 2003, I caught an interleague game in Milwaukee, and there was Wake. Wake’s knuckler was flat and hittable that day, and the roof was closed, and the Brewers hit so many home runs in quick succession that a haze of gun smoke from the home run fireworks hung over the field. Bernie Brewer may have had a heart attack that day from hurrying so many times back to the top of his spiral slide, but he was saved when Wakefield, taking a turn at bat, was drilled in the ankle and had to be transported off the field on a golf cart. He sat upright on the back of the cart, his legs dangling, which seemed sort of humiliating somehow, as if he were being taken to a windowless room under the stadium where he’d be forced to read newspapers attached to long library rods. Wake recovered from the injury and later in the season pitched brilliantly in the playoffs all the way up until the last batter. I turned off the television the moment the ball struck by that last batter cleared the fence and I have tried, haplessly, to not give it a moment’s thought ever since.

A few months after Wake walked off the field as sadness personified at the center of raucous celebration, my girlfriend and I moved to Chicago. I got work. That was about eight years ago, 2004. I’m still waking to what work is. Work is  paying bills and health insurance for my wife and kid. It’s showing up. It’s a long fucking bus ride to and from every day. It’s watching the cubicle next to you empty out during layoffs and saying a prayer of thanks it wasn’t you. It’s trying to do a good job. It’s doing a half-assed job. And it’s getting through those moments, those days, those weeks, those years, of doing something that doesn’t have anything to do with what you thought and hoped you might become. And it’s none of those things, too. It has nothing to do with real work.

Anyway, this morning I failed to lay the baby down the right way and he woke.

“Goddamn,” I muttered. I grabbed him back up to start all over with the shushing and jiggling and sweating and work.

“Hand him over,” my wife said. Sometimes I refuse this offer, but this morning I lateraled the boy to my wife as if to avoid a Lawrence Taylor sack. I went to my writing desk to do some work. I set this Tim Wakefield card on my desk. I thought about how long he’d been with me and how he was no longer going to be there, not in any rod-locked newspapers or on the field or in a baseball card. This is it. One last look.

Maybe because I couldn’t bear to take that last look, I procrastinated and, thinking about the idea of work, I located Philip Levine’s classic poem “What Work Is.” I read it and then listened to it being read by the author. It’s about work and about art and about love. It’s about that slow painful waking called life.

So finally then one last look. Wake at work. He is relaxed and focused. He is holding the ball lightly, tenderly. He is about to let go with a tenderness you may never see the likes of again. What happens next, after he lets go? With this pitch you can’t know what will happen next. My baby is awake. I can hear him. What will happen? You can’t ever know. The hard work, the real work, awaits.

***

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Mike Torrez

February 7, 2012

How Strange the Design

Three

But I never finished telling you about Mike Torrez. That’s my tribute to the first sentence of the Denis Johnson story, “The Other Man,” which begins “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” It is one of my favorite first sentences. It works in the context of a standalone story as a disorienting, alluring first line, speaking of the inability of anything to be fully said or known, and it works in the context of Johnson’s book of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, as a way not only to loop the story back to an earlier story (“The Two Men”) but to communicate that this fractured life is all one song, strung together imperfectly through digressions and obsessions and compulsions and associations and the meandering hunger of the disintegrating mind. Everything is woven haphazardly into a uniform of strange design. I never finished telling you about anything. I never will.

***

Since his appearance as an Expo in perfect balance in his 1974 card, Mike Torrez has grown a mustache. Perhaps this is an attempt on his part to exert some control over concrete reality amid the constantly changing particulars of his existence. He has been in constant motion. From December of 1974 to November of 1977, less than three full years, he has gone from the Expos to the Orioles to the A’s to the Yankees and finally to the team referred to on the front of this card clumsily and flimsily with some rushed goopy paint, the sloppy attention to the finer elements of design leaving some equivocation about the pitcher’s current whereabouts.

***

“As I age, I find the distinctions between past and present increasingly nebulous; it all just blends together in one eternally present memory, kind of like a Bob Dylan song.  Or as he puts it in his memoirs, ‘I kept up with the news, except that it was the news from the Civil War. That was the news I was interested in.’” – Sean Dolan

***

I never finished telling you about Juan Epstein. Several days ago, when I’m sure I should have been doing something else, I was meandering around in the Google newspaper archives, looking through articles in scanned 1970s newsprint for traces of Robert Hegyes, the recently deceased actor who played Juan Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter. I found a favorable review of an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter set to air that night, October 2, 1978. I know that date. Of all the days I could have walked into in all the scanned newspapers in all the world . . .

***

The flickering signs of promise in the stats on the back of Mike Torrez’ 1974 card have bloomed on the back of his 1978 card into robust testaments to stardom, namely 68 wins in 4 years, a borderline-ace average of 17 per year. Constant motion has not adversely affected performance, Torrez apparently possessed with phenomenal focus, impervious to the intimations of transience and disappearance all around him. I’m sure I was glad to find him in a pack, glad to see that he seemed to be on my favorite team.

***

As soon as I noticed that the date of the newspaper that Juan Epstein had brought me to was October 2, 1978, I scrolled to the sports page, and there it was: the Red Sox had tied the Yankees the day before, on the last day of the regular season schedule. A one-game playoff was set for that afternoon. I scrolled to the standings to see everything in perfect poise, the team I love tied with the team I hate. The playoff game and probable pitchers were listed in the upcoming game schedule below the standings. Ron Guidry that year was the best pitcher I’d ever seen, but I still had hope in Mike Torrez.

***

There is one odd note amid the numbers on the back of Mike Torrez’ 1978 card. According to the information there, and compared to corresponding information on his 1974 card, Mike Torrez is in the process of shrinking. In addition to losing 13 pounds of weight, he has lost an inch of height, dropping from 6’6” to 6’5”. I wouldn’t have noticed this oddity upon finding this card in a pack. I would have been happy to find a player listed as a member of my favorite team, and I would have focused on all the wins. I might have found the doctored uniform slightly unsettling in a subconscious way, but I was not yet in the habit of tuning into omens of estrangement.

***

It’s a given that I watched the episode of Welcome Back, Kotter on the night of October 2, 1978, as it was my favorite show at that time and I wouldn’t have had any other plans. Funny to think about plans for the evening of October 2, 1978. My world would have been leveled by then. In the episode, Juan Epstein and the rest of the Sweathogs—save for Barbarino, who by that point because of John Travolta’s growing fame had begun disappearing from the show (that individual disappearance the fatal beginning of the eventual disappearance of the show altogether)—attempt to talk a depressed girl off of a high ledge she has crawled onto with the intention of permanently disappearing.

***

Unwilling to return to the present, I scrolled over to the horoscope page for October 2, 1978. I used the birth date listed on the back of Mike Torrez’ 1978 card to locate his astrological sign. How were things going to go for him that day? All his career he’d been a winner. “Most efforts should prosper,” begins his fortune. “Even so, think before you speak or act. There’s a trend now toward the unusual, even the bizarre.”

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Luis Tiant

October 5, 2011

Last Wednesday, my wife and I took our son to the doctor for his two-month checkup. Two months seems too insubstantial. Parents of older children tell me to enjoy every moment because “it goes by so fast,” but I find myself yearning for a quicker passage of time so that the boy can stack up the days and weeks and months and become more and more fully and safely here. I don’t know how to explain that feeling (or feelings in general) except in baseball card terms. Most players, like most things, come and go with very little trace or even no trace at all, but certain cards, such as this 1979 Luis Tiant, seem to be invincible, despite their inherent flimsiness, and it has to do with all the many seasons on the back of the card anchoring the player into place as a star, a bright constant in an ever-shifting world.

At the doctor, my son got two shots, one in each leg, to protect him from several diseases. When we got home his legs began to swell up, and he started screaming. We couldn’t find any way to help him. Finally, around dusk, we put him in a stroller and went to the drug store to get some baby Tylenol. The walk seemed to distract him a little, and the screaming tapered off to little grunts and groans. When we got to the store I stayed outside and rolled the stroller up and down a patch of sidewalk while my wife went in to buy the pain-killer. The store is in an area where there are some sketchy characters, and on the way out of the store my wife was harassed by a pack of them.

“Fuck you,” my wife shouted over her shoulder at them.

“What’d they say?” I asked.

“Whatever,” she muttered and started leading the way back toward home, where our son would start screaming again. She held the Tylenol, and I pushed the stroller containing our suffering baby away from the pack of harassers, salving my feelings of powerlessness with fantasies of violent revenge.

***

This is Luis Tiant’s last card with the Red Sox. He left the Red Sox a little over a month after a one-game playoff defeat ended the team’s 1978 season. Players on the Red Sox lamented that the heart of the team was gone, and the team’s immediate plummet into uninspired mediocrity bore those claims out. I was only 11, but I didn’t blame Tiant for leaving. I don’t think other fans did, either, even though he went to the Yankees; the general feeling about the exodus of many players from the star-studded 1970s team was that the incompetency and cheapness of the front office was to blame, not the players. This last card of him as a Red Sox player seems fitting to me, a quiet, almost meditative shot of him doing what he did as well as any player ever has: connecting with a fan. We want to feel solid and capable and powerful. We need that connection.

***

I am fairly certain that I would lose to almost everyone on earth if ever pitted against them in a fight, so it was difficult for me to come up with realistic fantasies in which I was able to run up toward the street-hardened harassers of my wife and cause them all grave pain. I decided I’d have to rely on a lot of surprise groin-kicks, as many as I could fit in before their superior strength, fighting skills, and generalized rage at the unjust world kicked in and left me fractured and bleeding on the sidewalk (at best). Really what I needed, I reasoned while pushing my baby home, was a large and powerful weapon, not a gun but some kind of industrial-strength many-barreled taser capable of subduing with agonizing force several members of a gang of harassers, but even armed with that in my fantasy I saw myself somehow fumbling my grip on the weapon and having it used against me in horrible ways. Finally I surrendered to that old standby of my life and of the impotent and powerless everywhere: the impossible fantasy of having super-strength. Oh, they would laugh and heckle as I approached in my glasses and my drab middle-aged ectomorphic garments, but then wham and ca-crush and b-doouuzzzh and bodies flying everywhere, jaws cracking, eye sockets caving in. Oh, the weeping and begging. Oh, my great and awesome power! Fear me!

“What’s the matter with you?” my wife asked as we neared the entrance to our building. I guess I had a look on my face.

It was a rough night with the baby, but not as bad as the day had been, and finally he settled into a shallow sleep. I was free to follow the progress of game 162 of the 2011 baseball season. I have nothing to say about that game, but the departure the following day of Terry Francona from the Red Sox reminds me a little of Luis Tiant’s in the fall of 1978, just after the end of a Red Sox collapse that until the night of baby Tylenol and groin-kick fantasies was inarguably the worst regular season flop in franchise history. That 1978 team, like all 86 yearly editions of the Red Sox that had failed to win the World Series from 1919 to 2003, was redeemed in 2004, thanks in considerable part to the leadership of Terry Francona. Once the Red Sox finally won the World Series, everyone who had ever played for the Red Sox got to ride in the victory parade (figuratively if not literally), which to a lifelong fan was supremely gratifying. It helped give me back my childhood, the sheer fun of rooting for Lynn and Rice and Yaz and that warm ancient wizard, Luis Tiant, of believing he was going to lead them all the way. Until 2004, I avoided my summery childhood memories because they were tangled in a slanting October twilight that made all the players from the 1970s team seem forever doomed to fail, and since my identification with them was so deeply rooted and intimate—they were the projections of my deepest wishes in the world—I felt forever doomed to fail, too. Terry Francona was the leader of the team that lifted that burden. I will always be grateful to him. Fan is short for fanatic but it might as well be short for fantasy. In being a fan we hope to become more powerful, more victorious, than we are in real life. Amazing that sometimes it actually turns out to really feel that way. It certainly didn’t last Wednesday night for me, and the next day Terry Francona was no longer the manager of the Red Sox, but two times in my life I really did have super-strength, and both of those times Terry Francona presided.

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September 29, 2011

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Carlos Quintana

May 13, 2011

I’ve got an essay on Carlos Quintana over at Pitchers & Poets as part of that great site’s “1990s First Basemen Week,” which also includes contributions from Jonah Keri, Joe Posnanski, Will Leitch, Alex Belth, and many others.

(And as long as you’re clicking on links, be sure to check out Larry Granillo’s article on Baseball Prospectus about the history of the backs of baseball cards.)

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Juan Beniquez

March 30, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

Boston Red Sox

Three days ago, I ended a cell phone call that had lasted an hour and a half and stood in the atrium of the corporate office building where I work and stared out at the parking lot and the cold blue sky. The feeling in my body—a dry, raw throat, a thudding in my head, exhaustion spreading through my limbs—was as if I had just spent the duration of the long call inconsolably sobbing. In fact, I had been on the phone with AT&T, pleading and demanding and, ultimately, producing something like muted, measured howling, the sound a hybrid creature might make if that hybrid creature was partially a middle-aged cubicle occupant and partially a small jittery woodland mammal ensnared in the sharp teeth of a powerful metal trap. I  don’t feel like going into the details of the situation that resulted in and was completely unresolved by the one and a half hour phone call, but—in a life pocked, like everyone else’s, with such random victimizations—it has been my most frustrating experience yet with an utterly indifferent, incompetent corporate behemoth, and it has fucked with my life for several weeks. After ending the long and useless cell phone call, I wanted to drop atom bombs or dig a hole in the ground and fall in or smash things with a baseball bat or climb back into the womb or drink a river of bourbon or sleep for the next ten or twelve years. Instead, I took a deep breath, walked back upstairs, apologized to my boss for missing a meeting, returned to my cube, woke my computer, and worked.

The 2011 baseball season is about to begin amid this crystallization of my place in the world: more or less a speck, powerless. I look to this Juan Beniquez card for signs that the coming season will be a good one for the team I’ve looked to for three and a half decades to provide everything to me that has ever been otherwise lacking in my life. I’ve looked to the Red Sox to make me feel happy, to make me feel victorious, to make me feel powerful, to make me feel like the year, whichever year it is, is the year, a year that will not slip past like nothing, like I wasn’t even here in the first place. I look to Juan Beniquez and my 43-year-old eyes see a guy on the brink of a baseball life of transience, a major league equivalent of a powerless speck. I know now that he left the Red Sox soon after this 1975 card came out and traveled from team to team for years, never really settling anywhere. This can’t have been easy to hear, again and again: Juan, you’re gone, Juan, you’re gone.

But I also look to Juan Beniquez and see a battered, well-handled 36-year-old baseball card, beloved. I see the small hands that reached for it and held it again and again. The year this card came out was my first full year of collecting cards, and following my big brother’s lead I sorted the cards into teams, my little collection of Red Sox by far my most valued rubber-band wrapped stack, and within that stack I sorted by that most fundamental of sorting systems, still relatively new to me, the alphabet, and so Juan Beniquez was on the top of my stack of Red Sox the year I fell in love for good with that team and with cards and with baseball. Below him was Burleson and Carbo and Cleveland and all the others, but he was on top, the first of the Red Sox. I have always thought of him this way, though I hadn’t realized it until now. It’s the reason why—even though he left the team the next season and played for many years and for many other teams after leaving—I still think of him as a definitive Red Sox player from my childhood. I still think of him not as a Texas Ranger or California Angel or Seattle Mariner but instead exactly as he is here, a young, whip-thin guy with a sly grin on his face, holding his bat straight out in front of him like he’s mocking a dowser or making fun of a teammate by pretending his bat is that proverbial barrier from disgustingness, the ten-foot pole. Or like he’s holding the bat out playfully for someone to try pulling it out of his hands, an offer to take him up in a tug of war.

I see myself as the seven-year-old boy who didn’t have any notion that he’d grow up to be, like pretty much everyone else, more or less a powerless speck, and when I was a seven-year-old boy I imagined myself right into the card. This, along with Juan Beniquez’ defining status throughout 1975 as the first of the Red Sox, is why the card looks so beat up. I see that little kid handling the card again and again, his imagination carrying him into the world of the card. The little kid, with a bright-eyed grin, grabs hold of the outstretched bat and tries to pull it from Juan Beniquez’s hands. The little kid giggles as the tug-of-war ensues, Juan Beniquez keeping the sly deadpan smirk on his face. It’s not a real struggle but something else, something more important: a game.

The 2011 season is about to start and I try not to hope for anything anymore because hope distorts and disconnects and ensnares but despite knowledge of such things I feel once again an echo of that old giggly feeling, like I’m part of the game, like I’m connected, like I’ve got my hands on something and I have the power to pull it toward me. There’s hope.  

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 21 of 30: To keep on top of all things having to do with the consensus favorite to reign atop the vicious A.L. East, read Joy of Sox; to get the front line view of a rabid camera-packing Red Sox fan, check with A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripes Territory; and be sure to appreciate while you still can one of the all-time Red Sox greats in what looks as if it might be his last go-round, Tim Wakefield 

***

2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s; Seattle Mariners; Chicago Cubs; Baltimore Orioles; [California] Angels; Texas Rangers

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Carl Yastrzemski’s kielbasa

September 17, 2010

Back in June, I told the story of how my childhood wish for an autograph from my hero, Carl Yastrzemski, was finally fulfilled by way of a circuitous combination of some long ago promotional endorsement of encased meats and the kindness of a Boston Globe reader, Ann Beaudoin, who’d seen a story in that paper about me and my gods that mentioned my unrequited desire for the Hall of Famer’s scribbled name. Yesterday I got another piece of mail from Ann with a newspaper flier inside and a message relating that she had seen the photo on the cover of the flier and decided to pass it along.

Sometimes I wonder about things. I wonder a lot, obviously, about the past. I suppose all this wondering is a way of asking if the past and present can ever meet. I don’t know if they can. But now, at least, I know that there is a place “where the past and present meat” and that they do so in the very spot where Yaz once stood.

I also wonder about the future. I wonder what happens when we die. Will there really be a question and answer session when the final out is recorded? This is a common story we like to tell ourselves anyway. Maybe it’s true.

And what did you do with your one brief life? I’ll be asked.

I picture a guy at a desk, holding a clipboard. (In my version of the afterlife, celestial intake workers have not yet been upgraded to computers.)

I’m not really sure, I’ll reply.

Come on, give me something, the intake worker will prod me. It’s on my list, and we can’t leave it blank. We had a whole meeting about it.

Well, I guess there’s this, I’ll say. I don’t know if it says anything about what I chose to focus on in my life, but there was one time when someone I’d never met saw Carl Yastrzemski holding kielbasa and thought of me.

Whether or not this tidbit gets me processed to some higher plain or to a more purgatorial or even punitive realm or, worst of all, to nonexistence altogether, remains to be seen (or not seen), but in this world it made the past and the present and the future meat and I couldn’t help but smile.

***

A “book tour” note:

I’ll be part of a reading at a bar in Chicago this Sunday.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 19TH, 6 PM CENTRAL
Orange Alert Reading Series
The Whistler
2421 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL
also reading: Adam Golaski (“Color Plates”), Davis Schneiderman (“Drain”), Ben Tanzer (“Lucky Man”)
Free and open to the public
(Metromix listing of event here.)

Hope to see you there. If you can’t make it and are suspicious that my ability to read is a hoax, I’ll leave you today with some grainy, Zapruder-ambiguous proof in the form of a bit of digital-camera video taken by my Uncle Bob at a reading I did this summer at the general store where, long ago, I first made the acquaintance of most of the gods who live in a shoebox on top of the file cabinet next to my desk. 

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Dick McAuliffe

September 14, 2010

Speaking of gloves and of Dick McAuliffe (see the discussion in the comments section of the recent Bill Lee post), here’s the featured player on the only glove in my childhood home with a signature embedded in it. It belonged to my brother. I always found this signature and the glove itself a little mysterious, because at almost exactly the same time I started coming awake to baseball, Dick McAuliffe was disappearing. It gave my brother’s glove a somehow disquieting connection to the distant past. Dick McAuliffe was not completely unknown to me but was instead a weird, unsettling flickering in my consciousness. I had this 1974 card of Dick McAuliffe and no others, but the card and my other few cards from 1974 (the year of my first shallow foray into buying packs of cards) always seemed out of place with the rest of my cards, in part because there were so few of them in my collection and in part because most of the players shown on them still seemed to be rooted in an earlier, more cleancut era than the one that exploded through the more colorful cards that Topps featured for the remainder of the decade. I’m attracted to the classy understatement of the 1974 cards now, but when I was a kid I think I was a little creeped out by them, as if they were akin to one of those shadowy, toyless rooms at your grandparents’ house that no one really hangs around in anymore. If you ever ended up alone in one of those rooms you’d linger for a little while just to kind of scare yourself a bit, standing there on a self-made dare and looking at the dusty antique lamp and the leather-bound books and the black and white photos of your uncles as crewcutted little Rockwellian boys with melancholy eyes, but then before long you’d go sprinting back downstairs to where everyone was sitting around eating cheese and crackers and intermittently monitoring a football game that no one really cared about. This is the primary function of sports, isn’t it? To serve as comforting background chatter when you race in from dark quiet rooms with your heart pounding? Anyway, the 1974 cards were like those dark quiet rooms to me, sort of, or at least some of them were, like this Dick McAuliffe card. Who was Dick McAuliffe and what was he doing on my favorite team and on my brother’s glove? And where did he go? And why had I never heard about him anywhere despite the long run of good seasons listed on the back of his card?

We’re all just passing through.

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Bill Lee, 1976

September 7, 2010

On the back of this 1976 Bill Lee card, there’s a cartoon featuring a stooped, white-bearded old man in a baseball uniform, using a baseball bat as a cane. Though the cartoon is about a legendary old-timer named Jim O’Rourke who played pro ball into his golden years, it seems now to be a bit of cosmic foreshadowing about the fiercely focused young man depicted on the front of the card in a photo taken during the 1975 season, when Bill Lee won 17 games for the third season in a row and helped lead his team to the American League pennant.

The 1976 season would prove to be a turning point in Lee’s major league career, the last he would spend while still in his twenties. He had logged seven seasons in the majors before 1976, and he’d stick around for seven more, but in part because of an injury to his shoulder that occurred during a brawl with the Yankees, and in part because of a personality conflict with Red Sox management in general and manager Don Zimmer in particular, Lee never regained his previous spot of prominence on the staff of the Red Sox, who eventually dealt him to the Expos, where he, so it would seem, wrapped up his professional career in 1982.  

But then just this past Sunday, Lee, sporting a white beard and white hair similar to the cartoon of the old-timer on the back of his 1976 card, took the mound in uniform for the Brockton Rox, pitched into the sixth inning, surrendering only two runs, and recorded a win. Let me say that again. At the age of 63, facing professional players less than half his age, Bill Lee won.

As this feat basically leaves me speechless, I’ll turn it over from here to other sources. Steve Henson of Yahoo sports has a good overview of Lee’s possibly historic win (the speculation, perhaps impossible to prove, is that he is the oldest man to ever win a professional game). I also enjoyed an article from a Brockton paper that focuses on the reaction from the opposing manager, Rich Gedman, who despite seeing his team lose ground in the playoff hunt can’t help but marvel at Lee’s mastery of the art of pitching. Finally, for the essential fan’s eye view, check out Jere Smith’s satisfyingly photo-laden post at A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripe Territory, plus some video of the game from Jere (who was in double-heaven that day, judging by the moniker he uses to comment now and again on this site: “Gedmaniac”) at his YouTube channel Randomonium (Lee introduces the segment, and then the clips of him pitching are in the segment’s second half).

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Letter to Yaz: an Update

June 28, 2010

As I’ve mentioned on this blog and in my book, when I was a kid I sent a letter to Carl Yastrzemski asking for his autograph. I started checking the mailbox within a day or two of sending that letter, and continued checking the mailbox for years, long after a reply would have been plausible in any way. This bit of unrequited yearning made it into a recent Boston Globe article on me and my book, and a kindly Globe reader named Ann Beaudoin from Worcester, Massachusetts, took note and contacted me:

Hello, I just read the story in the Boston Globe about your book appearance, and it mentioned your favorite player was Carl Yastrzemski who never sent you back an autograph. Funny, I was just going through old stuff in my attic and came across Yaz’s autograph, which my husband got at a local grocery store back in 1977 when Yaz was doing promo hawking Hilshire Farm kielbasa.

 

An envelope from Worcester arrived in my hands a couple of days later with this slip of paper inside:

Some words jotted near the upper right corner of this side of the slip of paper hint at what is on the back of the slip. But I have waited a long time for the markings on the back of the slip to make their way to me, so I feel compelled to search for clues on how the circle that started with me sending a letter to Yaz was finally completed. I think the list along the left side may shed some light. Of all the grocery store items listed in the left-hand column, only onion rings remained elusive. A can of onion rings.

Onion rings seem to have been an issue that predated the creation of the list. The bearer of the list had perhaps brought onion rings home once before, but not inside a can, leading the possibly frustrated list-maker to underline not once but twice the word can.

“We need onion rings, but in a can. You got it? A can.”

“I got it, I got it.”

“Because last time—”

“I know, I know, I know. Jeez.”

“Don’t ‘jeez’ me. A can.”

I’ve been a husband for a little while now, so it’s pretty easy for me to imagine this exchange. Who among us husbands hasn’t been sent off with such a list, only to return home, shoulders hunched, some crucial part of that list unfulfilled? I know I have. So I find myself imagining the bearer of this list wandering the aisles at length, unable to locate a can of onion rings.

If it were me pushing the cart, I would begin to think, not without some self-pity, about how I’d never even seen a can of onion rings before. Who knew they even existed in can form? Such a capitulatory line of thinking would give way to me daydreaming about the onion rings sold on Nauset Beach, back when I was a kid and my grandparents lived on Cape Cod. The onion rings at the Nauset Beach snack bar were greasy and good, and the smell of them wafted out over the beach, combining with the other smells, the sea, sand, suntan lotion, to create one of the more indelible scent memories of my life. I’d wish to go back, not only to Nauset Beach but to my childhood, to when my grandparents were alive and would go with me and my brother and our whole family and aunts and uncles and cousins to the beach to lie around and get sunburned and try to bodysurf on the thrashing waves in the freezing cold Atlantic.

But meanwhile, back in the grocery store, no onion rings in a can. And so to compensate I’d do what the bearer of this list seems to have done—cross out each found item extra hard and thoroughly, as if to prove my list-fulfilling capabilities.

Then I see myself taking one more mostly hopeless loop through the aisles, glancing at shelves I’d already looked at but not really seeing them this time, instead letting my thoughts reach forward to my arrival home, where I would deliver an impassioned speech on the impossibility of locating a can of onion rings anywhere on earth, given the great time and dogged attention devoted on my part to the search.

And that is when, rounding a corner to the encased meats section, I would come upon a commotion, people beginning to form a line by a relatively small, tired-looking man with flecks of gray in his hair, seated behind a folding table, a pen in his right hand, the scent of Hilshire Farms kielbasa aloft on the muzaked air. I would join this line and ready the only signable item on my person, the back side of the grocery list.

Though I wouldn’t have thought of it this way at the time, when I sent my letter to Yaz over thirty years ago I was asking a question of the universe. The universe answered with silence for so long that I thought silence was the only answer, but it turns out the answer to the deepest question I could think to ask as a child is this: onion ring. Do prayers come true? Do gods answer letters? The answer is neither yes nor no. The answer is empty. The answer is a circle. The answer is an onion ring.

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