It is fucking cold here in Chicago, Illinois. Twelve degrees below zero as of this moment. I haven’t been outside since yesterday, when I put on two pairs of socks, long underwear, my thickest pair of jeans, three shirts and a sweater, a parka, hiking boots, gloves, two wool hats, and a scarf the size of a blanket and walked a few blocks to slide the DVD of Pineapple Express through the return slot at the video store. The digital bank clock by the video store reported that it was minus five. The walk there wasn’t so bad, but on the way back I was walking against a stiff wind, which I swore at through my unraveling scarf-blanket as the few inches of exposed skin on my face became increasingly painful.
But worse, really, is the oppressive monotony of being inside all the time, especially in an apartment with very poor insulation. I’m in the apartment’s office right now, which is above the unheated stairwell. The wood floor feels like chilled metal, and cold air pushes through the two windows. I’m wearing a wool hat, long underwear, flannel pants, two pairs of socks, slippers, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a sweater, and a gortex vest, and I’m still chilly, especially in my hands, which I have to rub and blow on pretty constantly, like Bob Cratchit. The heat comes on every couple minutes, producing images of cartoon dollar bills flying from my wallet. Our heating bills are going to put us into the poor house, which is probably even more poorly insulated. Or worse, we’ll be out on the street. My god.
I’m glad I’ve got a roof over my head during times like these.
But I wish I was in a place as warm and sunny as the one on this 1978 baseball card of George Brett. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure that it’s warm wherever Brett was when the picture was snapped, but it is inarguably sunny, and he is without a hat and doesn’t seem to be cringing against a stiff wind or wearing anything thicker than the thin blue polyester Royals uniform designed for the brutally hot Kansas City summers. I guess you could argue that some manner of wind is blowing Brett’s tousled golden locks, but I really think it must be more of a gentle spring breeze than a stiff chilly gust.
So that’s where I want to be. Bathed in sunlight. The sounds of the game echoing across the warm green fields. I think what I’d do is lean back and close my eyes and angle my face right up at the sun and just listen.
The worst cold snap I experienced occurred in Vermont in January 2000, the year I lived in a cabin with no electricity. I went to visit my aunt and uncle near the beginning of the cold snap, and couldn’t leave for a couple days during the worst of it because my car refused to start. Finally it coughed to life one morning when the temperature rose from instantly crippling cold to merely really, really cold, and I drove back to my cabin, first stopping at a K-Mart to buy thick opaque sheets of plastic to put up over my windows and another wool hat to add to the bulky collection on my head. When I got back to the cabin I discovered that everything I owned had frozen solid, including things that I didn’t know could freeze, such as toothpaste. I got a sputtering fire going in the little wood stove, using the shitty green wood that the owner of the cabin, a tense hippie with a reputation for fucking people over, had sold me, then I inexpertly plastered the plastic all over the windows using duct tape. I spent the remainder of the winter huddled over the wood stove, practically hugging it, because it never generated enough heat to warm up the whole cabin. I couldn’t really see anything through the plastic, but I had a vague idea of whether it was night or day, and I could tell by the wind rattling the birches and moaning through pines that it was cold out there, the kind of cold that would seem almost predatory if it weren’t so completely indifferent.
I was ostensibly working as a teacher during that era, but by January 2000 my course load as an adjunct professor had dissolved to next to nothing, my only task being the sporadic tutoring in essay writing of a Vietnam vet with severe post-traumatic stress disorder who eventually stopped showing up for our meetings. But I still went onto campus every couple of days to the office I shared with several other adjuncts so that I could check the progress of my fantasy basketball team. It gave at least the tiniest shred of a shape to a life that had become almost utterly shapeless.
I guess my life has more of a shape now, but I still start every day with a check of my fantasy team or teams. Right now all I’ve got going is a basketball squad in second-place in a thirteen-team league, but I think I did see some article just this morning on my way to check on my roster about B.J. Upton’s prospective slot in upcoming fantasy baseball drafts. I was excited by this, because this meant it is almost time for me to put together a pre-draft ranking list, which always proves to be an enjoyable way to kill some time.
I’m not really sure why I find such things enjoyable. I do know that ever since I was a boy I’ve tried to dream my way out of my life and into a fantasy life revolving around sports, especially baseball. In 1978, the year I first held this sun-drenched George Brett card in my hand, I was well into a childhood consumed with imaginary baseball-related games around the house, games in which I would become someone else, or actually whole worlds of someone elses. I’d be every player on both teams and the crowd and the announcers, too. At the moment of victory I’d pitch to my knees in the back yard holding a whiffle ball bat or tennis ball or whatever else I’d been using and imagine I was the victorious long-suffering star, finally basking in the warm light of winning, and I’d pretend to cry.
But the coldest I’ve ever been was not here in Chicago or in Vermont but one night while I was drifting randomly around Europe the year after I finished college. I had been in Essen, Germany, lazing around a youth hostel while I waited for the Grateful Dead to arrive in town for a concert. Unfortunately, the day before the concert I was told I had to leave the hostel because it had been reserved months before to house several teams of acrobatic teenagers from all around the globe coming to Essen to compete in an international youth trampolining contest. Evicted, I took a train to Cologne, arriving in the late afternoon. Both of the youth hostels I tried in Cologne were full. I guess I could have shelled out for a room in a hotel, but I don’t think I even considered that. I didn’t have much money, and more importantly I was obsessed with the idea that my money equaled time, as in the longer I could keep my little roll of bills alive the longer I could delay my return to the utter blank of my post-college life in America. So I went down to a park along the river with my backpack. Though it was November I didn’t think it was that cold, at least while the sun was still above the old-world steeple-marked skyline. I think I even imagined it might be peaceful. A night out under the stars! But as the night went on it got colder and colder. Pretty soon into it I had emptied my backpack of every last article of clothing I owned and wrapped it around my shivering body. I figured if I could fall asleep I could make the night go by faster, but I was never able to even so much as fall into a shallow ditch of unconsciousness for more than a couple minutes, at which point I’d wake up trembling and have to get up and do jumping jacks and wind-sprints. I also whooped and hollered, as if by using my voice I could somehow push back against a world that kept telling me I had to move.
If I had lived a certain kind of life maybe by now I would have enough money in the bank to get the hell out of town when it gets really fucking cold. Perhaps I could even go to Fantasy Camp. This is where middle-aged dudes pay a bundle to exit the winter and play baseball in the warm sun against each other and against some of the major leaguers who showed up on the baseball cards and in the fantasies of the campers back when they were basking in the summertime glow of youth.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m mocking such a thing, because, really, if I had money how better could I spend it than on such a thing as this? That’s the thing with these baseball cards I write about day in and day out. When I was a boy I fantasized about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks, and now that I’m a middle-aged guy I fantasize about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks. These cards are the unchanging fantasy at the center of the unraveling spiral of my years.
So, yeah, more power to the Fantasy Camps, which feed into perhaps the single most enduring fantasy of American men that doesn’t involve a cheap funk soundtrack and grateful moaning. I don’t know exactly when the first Fantasy Camp opened, but I feel like I first started hearing about them around the time I was gripping onto my little wood stove for dear life during the year in the cabin.
But in fact the first Fantasy Camp occurred several years earlier than that, in the sunny year of 1978, under the visionary leadership of none other than the late great Mr. Roarke. Turns out George Brett was on hand, along with fellow Cardboard Gods Fred Lynn, Tommy Lasorda, and Steve Garvey. Gary “Radar” Burghoff was there, too, on one of his last stops on his way out of the public eye and into the oblivion beyond Fantasy Island guests spots. As Mr. Roarke explains, Burghoff’s character is a guy named Richard Delaney who wants to be a baseball superstar. (Fittingly, at least from where I’m sitting, Richard Delaney has come to the warm, sun-drenched island of fantasies from that undoubtedly cold-as-fuck city of reality: Chicago, Illinois.) To get a peek at Delaney’s fantasy, which is really all our fantasies, or even just to take a break from the cold and see some sunshine and warmth and to hear Ricardo Montalban demonstrate his greatness by the way he recites the words “baseball superstar,” click here (thanks to Dodger Thoughts for the link).
(Love versus Hate update: George Brett’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)