After I finished reading Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last, I started reading something completely different, a 2005 novel called Prep by a young woman named Curtis Sittenfeld. It is so good I want to carry her around with other acolytes on one of those Egyptian royalty conveyances and chant her name. It is so good that a couple mornings ago I got buried in it and missed my goddamn stop on the train and was late for work, something that has only happened once before in my extremely extensive life of reading on trains, and that previous time, many years ago, was because I happened to be in the midst of a very long girlfriend-less slump and so was particularly attentive to a long fuck scene in Sexus.
Sittenfeld’s book is set in a boarding school in Massachusetts (named Ault in the book; the author went to Groton School), and part of the ache in my gut as I devour her crystalline glimpses of a young life taking shape in that setting comes from the sliver of my own past that took place at a boarding school in Massachusetts. I was only there for two years, or actually less than two years since I didn’t quite make it all the way before being ordered to leave. I’ve covered that before on this site, but in a way I don’t think I’ll ever fully cover it, or recover from it. It’s too much.
It’s an odd thing to long for, a year and a half that I spent feeling like an addle-brained maladapted misfit until I discovered I could pulverize those feelings with bong hits. But there was a certain high concentration of experience there, such a striking contrast to my solitary rural life before and the solitary urban life that has come after, that makes it stand out as more unreachable and haunting than any other of the many unreachable and haunting places in my past. But high concentration of experience isn’t quite the right notion. Sittenfeld may be getting it right when she uses the word possibility:
This was the single best thing about Ault, the sense of possibility. We lived together so closely, but because it was a place of decorum and restraint and because on top of that we were teenagers, we hid so much. And then, in dorms and classes and on teams and at formal dinners and in adviser groups, we got shuffled and thrust together and shuffled again, and there was always the chance you might find out one of the pieces of hidden information. . . . Depending on circumstances, a wild fact could be revealed to you, or you could fall desperately in love. In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with. (p. 42)
I think we all must be haunted a little by the times in our lives when we felt a greater sense of possibility. Even that tenacious, focused warrior Leo Durocher seems to have been guided in a certain key way by a persistent attachment to a bygone feeling of boundless possibilities.
I say this because of the way he speaks in the book about Pete Reiser, the great and unlucky Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder whose career was cut short by injuries often brought on by his gung ho fielding style, which led him to crash into many unpadded outfield walls. At one point, and fairly famously, I think, Durocher claims that, if anything, Reiser was more talented than the greatest player Durocher (or anyone) ever managed, Willie Mays. “Might have been better,” Durocher says, comparing Reiser to Mays. After he was done managing these two centerfielders, Durocher was always on the lookout for the next Mays or Reiser, always looking for a way to return to a time bursting with the possibilities that a player of that caliber could bring to a team.
After managing Reiser’s Dodgers and Mays’ Giants, Durocher managed the Cubs, a team that seemed to have bothered him with its lack of a player like Reiser or Mays who could do it all. The possibilities with the Cubs slimmed down to the blunt inelegant flip of a coin that was the plodding center of their attack: the all-or-nothing slugging abilities of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams. When he finished with the Cubs he must have believed that he was finished for good. At a certain point you let go of the search to reconnect to that long gone feeling of possibilities.
But then Durocher decided to give it one more try, and the reason was simple: After all these years, he looked out to centerfield and thought he saw the glory of the past coming back to life. He looked out to centerfield and saw Cesar Cedeno.
“Natural talent?” Durocher noted. “Cesar Cedeno has it to burn.”
Unfortunately for Durocher, Cedeno seems not to have possessed the one thing that had connected the athletically limited Durocher (in 17 seasons as a player: 24 home runs and a lifetime batting average—in the batting average Mecca of the 1930s—of .247) to the athletically blessed Reiser and Mays: a burning desire to excel. Cedeno, it should be noted, ended up having a long, good career, but Durocher is certainly not the only observer who thinks that he could have done much better. By the time this card came out, in 1976, Cedeno was still only 25 years old, but his two greatest seasons, 1972 and 1973 (coincidentally or not the two seasons that Durocher served part of or the whole season as manager), were already behind him.
“You spend your life looking for the great talent that comes along about once a decade,” Durocher says while speaking of Cedeno, “and you have to sit there and see it being thrown away.”
You spend your whole life looking for possibilities. You spend your whole life looking for Willie Mays and Pete Reiser. You spend your whole life disappointed.
But, on a lighter note, it turns out Durocher wasn’t forever on the lookout only for a do-it-all centerfielder. . . .
Here’s some video footage of Durocher’s scouting attempts to sign a hard-throwing country boy (who in the youtube silent narration is recast as Roger Clemens).
And here’s some more video footage of Durocher’s encounters with a freakishly talented slugger.