Archive for the ‘Orel Hershiser’ Category

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Orel Hershiser

March 5, 2009

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One day when I was a kid my brother and I went panning for gold. I don’t remember where we got the idea. Probably from something on TV. We chose to ignore the fact that, as far as we knew, no gold had ever been discovered in our town, or in any surrounding town, or in the whole state of Vermont, or anywhere except the sunny golden valhalla a million miles away known as California.

***

Yesterday the news came that the center of the baseball world in 2009 is sunny southern California. At least that’s how the news of the signing of Manny Ramirez struck me. Even though I’m not a Dodgers fan, the news was somehow exciting to me, and I went to my old Baseball Toaster neighbor Dodger Thoughts to congratulate the Dodgers fans there. I blithely threw out a comment along the lines of “the playoffs are a lock now” and went on with my day, checking back later to see that a couple of other commenters had cringed at my hex-inviting certainty. In retrospect, I understood completely, and was sorry I’d used those terms. If it had been my own team that had signed one of the most reliable of the pure-gold sluggers in the history of the game, I would have tempered my excitement with the awareness that nothing, not even something that seems without question to be gold, is a sure thing. Even the most richly gleaming gem might turn out to be pyrite.

***

When my brother and I went panning for gold, it was something like spring, that brief queasy northern version of the season that seems to act like an alternately sentimental and sadistic despot who can’t decide whether to finally ease up on the cowering local subjects or punish them for daring to exit their storm-windowed encampments in anything less than fifty pounds of woolen outerware. We set out down the dirt road across from our house in sneakers, Toughskins, jeans jackets, and the green caps of our little league team. The temperature seemed to rise and fall as the sun ducked in and out of clouds, and during the walk to the stream where we would find our fortune we alternately sweated and shivered. We both carried a tin pie pan in one hand and in the other hand carried an empty mason jar to store all our riches.

***

Los Angeles has not been the inarguable center of the baseball universe for some time, probably not since the man pictured at the top of this page turned in one of the most golden of postseason performances in leading the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series title. It’s amazing to me to think that someone born the year this victory occurred is now old enough to get legally plastered in all 50 states. It seems like it just happened, that just a minute ago Orel Hershiser was mowing down everything in his path. This card, from 1995, a piece of the new “Aunt Celia” wing of the Cardboard God collection (named for my wife’s aunt, who gave me a pack of random cards of relatively recent vintage for Christmas), seems contemporary to me, as if it could have come out a couple years ago at most instead of over a decade ago. On the back is evidence of my distorted accordianing of time, Hershiser already seemingly in the midst of a long, gradual, injury-filled decline from his brief stay at the pinnacle of the game to a much longer spell as a good but not great pitcher apt to lose about as many games as he won. In 1988, Orel Hershiser seemed to be pure gold; by 1995 he was less than that, not gold anymore, not certain, but iffy, fragile, human.

***

My brother and I shivered by the side of the icy stream for a while, pine trees shielding us from the sun even when it shouldered free of the clouds. We kept one hand buried in the pocket of our jeans jacket and panned for gold with the other until the panning hand started to go numb and we switched hands. We didn’t really know how to pan for gold but had gleaned that you scooped up water and silt and tilted your pan back and forth until the water spilled over the sides and left a sludgy residue at the bottom of the pan. Then you sorted through the sludge with the fingers of your relatively warm pocket hand. It was spring, or before spring, or whatever it was in Vermont when somewhere far away down south the Red Sox were getting ready to carry our needy prayers on their shoulders. We were on our knees by a stream, trying to find something miraculous in the cold wet earth.

***

Orel Hershiser went on and on, blurrily, long after his heroics in 1988. I have decided to not look this up so as to lay bare the almost certainly unreliable nature of my memory, but it seems to me he played for several teams, bouncing back and forth from the AL to the NL. I do remember him briefly playing for the Mets late in his odyssey, mostly because my friend Ramblin’ Pete often reminisces about the game when Hershiser Made The Call. I can’t recall when this game was, but I’m thinking it was the late 1990s, and it was a big playoff game full of wrenching twists and turns, and as the game stretched into extra innings a TV camera showed Hershiser in the dugout reaching for the phone and placing a call. By this time in his career, Hershiser was well-known for his devotion to his Christian faith, and Pete believes that Hershiser, in the manner of the similarly squeaky-clean believer Ned Flanders, decided the time was right after all his years of humble service to make a supplication to The Man Upstairs, and did so via the use of the dugout telephone. As proof that this is what indeed happened, the Mets seized victory immediately after Hershiser placed the phone back on its receiver.

***

Spring, let’s face it, is a time to pray. You want to get excited about new beginnings, but you also want to hold back a little, temper your enthusiasm, acknowledge that life has a way of bringing you ever-new forms of pain and woe. You want to make no demands, voice no certainties, claim no entitlements. You want to pray in a way that won’t invite the gods to turn any riches you might possess to dust.

***

Every once in a while we found specks of something that glittered at the bottom of our pans. We used our cold fingers to separate these specks from the otherwise gray silt, and dropped the specks into our mason jars, closing the lids back up afterward as if the specks were capable of flying away, like fireflies. By the time we grew too cold to continue, we each had a thin layer of glittering specks at the bottom of our jars.

Somehow we knew the specks were worthless. But as we walked back home on the dirt road and the sun edged out from behind the clouds we held up our mason jars and shook them, hoping that the specks would fly around like a golden version of the storm in a snow globe. But the specks were wet and heavy. They remained embedded in the muddy residue at the bottom of our jars.

But in my praying, faulty memory I see it differently. The specks, somehow suddenly dry and light as confetti, come loose and swirl in the jars in our hands, shimmering in the light of the warming spring sun.

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