Somewhere I Lost Connection
(continued from Dave Skaggs)
Like Dave Skaggs, Larry Harlow came up in the Baltimore Orioles system, that school of baseball craftsmanship renowned above all others throughout the Cardboard Gods era and beyond. While other teams continued to stumble through the unpredictable business of finding and cultivating effective major league players, or abandoned that strategy by heeding the brand new siren call of free agency, the Orioles’ system continued to churn out polished, sturdy cogs for their well-oiled pennant-devouring machine. Every spring a new shipment arrived to replace whatever parts had either moved on to other places or had begun to show wear. The franchise’s tightly knit web of minor league teams, with wise rail-thin coaches preaching identical gospel at every level, always seemed able to produce whatever was needed: Cy Young starting pitchers, sure-handed infielders, fleet slap-hitting leadoff guys, reliable platoon hitters, armies of relievers, even the occasional Hall of Fame slugger. You name it, the Orioles made it. And all the Orioles came into the majors equipped with a grip on “the fundamentals” so firm as to seem something they were all born with. The pitchers threw strikes, the outfielders hit the cutoff man, the infielders turned double-plays as if they shared one mind.
This cohesive diamond artistry was attributed to the implementation of and adherence to something called The Oriole Way. The term carried a quasi-mystical aura to it, as if coming up through the Oriole system was something like training to be a Shaolin master. The multi-championship team based in Baltimore wasn’t merely a system or an organization or a franchise. It was a straight and narrow path through life.
Randomness defined my post-college travels in Europe, that short trip that in some ways stands as a microcosm of my life. After a few days of being stranded in the East German version of Lodi known as Schwerin, I got it in my mind that I would bum a ride heading back west with a fellow youth hostel guest who’d mentioned he’d be driving that way. But the night before his departure, just as I was about to ask him, he started talking about his motorbike out in the parking lot. I was traveling pretty light, but not that light.
So instead of curling back west in the direction of some vague notion of home, I wrote the name of the closest big city on a piece of cardboard and headed out to the highway. Because I didn’t know the language of the country I was in, I wasn’t sure which side of the highway I should be on, but after a long time watching the noxious river of cheap Soviet cars flow past me, I stopped caring about the direction I was pointed in. I stuffed my “BERLIN” sign back in my backpack and started hitching the old-fashioned way, no advertisement of a destination, no direction displayed, just a thumb sticking up toward the sky.
Hitchhiking is probably the most religious thing I’ll ever do. You wait and ask and are denied again and again and still you have to stand there waiting and asking. You start to invent your own cloying mantras. All I need is one kind person going my way. You start to believe bullshit such as my thumb is pointing toward heaven. You become intimately acquainted with rejection and failure, with the feeling that you are one high pile of stranded manure. You start having to dig deeper for faith. You start to see gods and angels.
I have done a lot of digging in my shoebox over the last few days, looking for Lodi among the gods. From what I can gather, Lodi does not make its mark on the truly blessed. In the earliest part of the 1970s, Lodi was in the San Diego Padres system. Of the Padres cards that I own, the most prominent major leaguer with the word “Lodi” on the back of his card is journeyman platoonist Johnny Grubb. In 1972, Lodi became a part of the Oriole Way, but from what I can see from the admittedly limited data of my baseball cards, the Orioles that would make a significant impact at the major league level were not made to pass through Lodi. The most prominent practitioner of the Oriole Way to be stuck in Lodi was Kiko Garcia. Kiko Garcia got out of Lodi after one season, as did Dave Skaggs.
Larry Harlow played a season in Lodi in 1972 and then in 1973 he got stuck in Lodi again.
But really the best way, the purest way, maybe even the most religious way to hitchhike is to not care. To surrender to randomness. I have only approached this unreachable ideal a couple times. The last time I did this was when I stuck out my thumb in Schwerin, not knowing if I was heading east or west. The first time I did this was many years earlier, when I was in my early teens, not long after I’d given up baseball cards. It was the summer. What are you supposed to do in the summer when you no longer care about baseball cards? I got a ride half way to town, and after standing by the road for a long time, waiting for a ride to take me the rest of the way, I started walking back toward home, but then whenever a car would approach I’d stick my thumb out and try once again for that ride. In other words, I was walking one way and hitching the other.
I figured, fuck it. Let the gods and the angels decide.
When the Way disappears you keep following the Way. Consider Larry Harlow. Here he sits, removed from the game but alert and ready at any moment to enter. It’s difficult to say if he will be given the chance. In the most recent season, he played sparingly and hit just .234. For someone with that flimsy a purchase on the majors, the specter of Lodi can never be far from the mind. But he seems to be focused on the moment, ready to do things the right way if called upon.
He does not seem at all aware of the ANGELS flag festooning the card at the approximate location of his heart, nor of the halo over the A on his helmet, nor even of the reflection on his helmet of one or even two figures too blurry to identify. Certainly they are Angels. Certainly they are always hovering all around us.
A crappy fume-spewing slavic lunchbox on wheels finally dislodged itself from the river of traffic. The driver and I could not understand one another, but after we yelled over the highway noise in our own languages for a few seconds I got in. I showed him my BERLIN sign but he just stared at me with impenetrable Cold War impassivity. I had no idea where we were going. The driver was a big pale guy with a walrus mustache, like that of a mine worker or Polish dissident or aging middle reliever. He steered with one hand and drank from a can of beer with the other. It was the middle of the morning. He smoked continuously. I leafed through my little phrase book. After a long while I finally had enough foreign-language ammo to attempt a sentence.
“I am a poet,” I said.
He took a pull of his beer then gave me his business card, which I couldn’t understand. We kept going. Eventually I started seeing signs for Berlin.
(to be continued)