During my four years of little league, I played every position on the field. In my first year I logged most of my innings in right or left field, then in my second year I played a lot of center, which was probably my favorite position, in part because I got to stand directly behind and cheer for our pitching ace, my big brother. In my third year I started bouncing around the infield, and in my final year while mostly playing third base I also pitched a few innings and, in one game, donned the tools of ignorance.
I understood that it was unusual for me to be a catcher—I wore glasses. No catchers wore glasses that I knew of, except for a couple major leaguers who sported glasses on top of heads that had superhero contours, their jaws seemingly chiseled from granite: Brian Downing and Darrell Porter.
I knew I wasn’t muscular and hard as granite. In fact, I even understood that I was kind of a sissy. In this as in all things I defined myself against my brother, and unlike him I shied from fistfights and other pursuits that seemed dangerous to me, such as skateboarding or downhill skiing or even sledding down really steep icy hills. Also, unlike me, he didn’t burst into tears every couple seconds. Even in baseball, my main defense against sissification, I had occasionally allowed a my true self to shine through, such as when I was in my first season and began weeping as I limped to first after being hit in the shins by a fastball from a 12-year-old with 5 o’clock shadow.
But I liked how it felt to wear the catching equipment. I liked how the mask fit over my glasses, canceling their customary vulnerability. The rest of the catching armor performed similar magic, making me feel unusually protected against the world. I remember being happy behind the plate, or happy and a little disoriented, or maybe happily disoriented. The equipment restricted my vision and my movements, but I also had a full view of the field, and this vision, coupled with the invulnerability from the armor, gave me a fleeting feeling of ownership over the game. Cutting against this feeling was my unfamiliarity with the demands of the position. But I was happy nonetheless, like a youthful invincible ruler stumbling through an inspection of his kingdom while just a little drunk.
Speaking of being drunk, I drank too much this past Friday night and wasted the whole next day as a groaning invalid. You’d think I’d know better by this point, now that I’ve put in 28 years of recreational inebriation since I acquired my first hangover when I was fifteen by getting drunk with a couple buddies on rum and coke, in a dark little league dugout a few feet away from where I’d had my brief moment as a bespectacled catcher. But Friday I got a chance to see a punk legend, Grant Hart, perform at a place right around the corner from my house, and it was fun to be blasted by the great loud heartbreaking melodies and the whiskey. Drinking, loud music: it’s a little like being a little league catcher to me. For a while, you’re wrapped in armor, surveying your kingdom, able to withstand anything.
During the winter of 1979, as I was waiting to play my final season of little league (and as a teenaged Grant Hart was beginning to play with Bob Mould and Greg Norton as Husker Du), Darrell Porter’s means of feeling invulnerable off the field was showing its grim limitations. Porter, who by then had established himself as one of the best catchers in the game, became paranoid due to increasingly heavy use of cocaine, and he began sitting by his front window with a shotgun, waiting for the arrival of the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, whom Porter was convinced would arrive at any minute and ban him from baseball.
Porter checked into rehab that spring. How do you replace the feeling of fake invulnerability? Porter became a born-again Christian. It’s unclear how long this allowed him to withstand the deep pull of addiction, but he seems to have led an admirably charitable and giving life throughout the rest of his baseball career and beyond. His good deeds seem even more impressive when considered against his enduring affliction, which ultimately claimed him in 2002, when an autopsy on his body found that he had cocaine in his system at the time of his death. High, he’d driven his car into a tree, then he’d stumbled from his car and down to a river where he soaked his leg, and he was struggling back toward his car when his heart stopped.
I knew even as I was enjoying myself behind the plate that I wasn’t really a ruler. I was no catcher. I understood enough about baseball to know that catchers were the toughest players in the game, and I understood enough about myself to know that I wasn’t tough. Bench, Fisk, Munson: those guys were tough. Even the rare catchers with glasses were tough. You could tell just from looking at their cards. Look at Darrell Porter in this 1977 card. Invulnerable. Tough. Like he didn’t even need any armor at all.