When I was a little boy living from pack to pack in rural Vermont in the 1970s, I knew my dream would one day come true of having a card from my collection serve as the backdrop for a riff session by three very funny people on a late-night cable television show. The Dick Pole stuff starts at around the sixteen-minute mark here. Particularly gratifying is that the Sklar brothers, arguably the funniest sports-obsessed comedians in the world (and the creators of the hilarious, sadly defunct baseball-card sitcom “Back on Topps”), are leading the Pole-stroking session. (Thanks to Bo Rosny for the lookout on this.)
Here is my preview of the 2015 National League Wild Card game:
There is no ball. No ball thrown, no ball struck. If these two randomly chosen cardboard still lifes are any guide, that’s what at play in tonight’s game: absence.
Both teams involved in the single-elimination Wild Card game this evening have become painfully familiar with absence. Before their recent resurgence, the Pirates racked up twenty losing seasons in a row, which is the major league record. Even more famously, the Cubs have now gone 106 years without winning a World Series, by far the longest drought not just in baseball but in all the major American team sports.
The roles of the two pantomimers shown here are fitting, in terms of what’s been missing. When the Cubs were in their heyday well beyond the memory of anyone alive today, the team was built on the staggeringly effective pitching of men such as Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. None of these pitchers, as it turned out, would have as much of a total impact on the Cubs as that of the pitcher shown here, Rick Reuschel, at least according to the most common number used these days to compare players at different positions and from different eras, WAR (short for wins above replacement player); Reuschel was by the estimation of baseball-reference.com worth 49 wins above replacement player for the Cubs, four better than old Mordecai and second among pitchers in Cubs’ history only to Fergie Jenkins. He never won a World Series with the Cubs, of course, but he won a lot of games and got to play on a team with his older brother, Paul, and is shown here smiling, and is something of the epitome of the Cubs’ lasting appeal throughout the many decades of futility, a beefy, likeable everyman not shirking his responsibilities in any way but also not appearing to take anything too seriously.
Bob Robertson represents to me a different, less personal epitome. The Pirates of my childhood—who were in continuous contention of the National League pennant and as such the polar opposite of the record-setting futility of the millennial Pirates—hit. They had hitters coming through the windows and leaping down from the trees. They had plenty of star hitters, Stargell and Parker and, a little before my time, Clemente, but it was their vast second battalion of hitting ferocity that impressed me, and where it became staggering was when it seemed to veer into an almost anonymous infinity. They had a guy named Bill Robinson and another named Bob Robertson and both seemed to be right-handed sluggers capable of belting 20 home runs in mere part-time duty, and this interchangeable pair of bludgeoners was in addition to Zisk, Hebner, Oliver, Garner, Sanguillen, etc., etc. And just for good measure even the infielders seemed capable of going on tears, judging from Rennie Stennett’s seven-hit game, which was immortalized with its own baseball card that showed on the back that the feat started with a double off Rick Reuschel and ended with a triple off of Paul Reuschel.
I don’t know what to make of this last connection, but I suspect that in it is the key to predicting the outcome of tonight’s game. I didn’t venture into this fortune-telling exercise with any foreknowledge that I would end up talking about Rennie Stennett, and that it would in turn lead me to the image of the Reuschel brothers—who I held above all baseball brothers because they played on the same team and because one of them, which I mistakenly thought of as the younger one, Paul, wore, like me, a younger brother, glasses—joined together in a humbling, battering defeat (a “22-0 plastering,” according to the Topps copywriter describing the Stennett game). I actually wanted to predict that the Cubs will win tonight, but the cards, at least as I am reading them, suggest otherwise. And all I’ll say about that is that absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence just hurts.
Here is my preview of the first game of the 2015 playoffs, based on two randomly chosen baseball cards from my childhood collection and their relation to the basic existential question of life.
What are we here for?
No one knows the answer to this question. Dick Tidrow represents the classic American hero’s response to this question, which is to ignore that it even exists, to squint with gunslinger toughness straight into the question, past the question. Why are we here? What kind of pussy question is that? We’re here to win. But of course winning, ultimately, isn’t an option, as attested to by the black circle with 40 in it on Tommy Helms’s jersey, a tribute to Don Wilson, who a few months after pitching a two-hit shutout in his last start of the 1974 season died of smoke inhalation in his garage. (His death was ruled an accident.) Tommy Helms was the hitting star of Wilson’s last game, homering and driving in three runs. The following season, with that somber number on their jersey, was a brutal one for the Astros, who dropped 97 games. Tommy Helms, nearing the end of his career during that loss-filled campaign, seems quizzical, bemused, perhaps a little more aware of life’s sorrowful twists than Dick Tidrow. Tommy Helms is not defeated, but he’s not going around imagining that our whole presence here is not just a little absurd.
Coming tomorrow: Preview of the National League Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game
In 1979, the world was divided thusly:
- Those who could graze the bottom of the net.
- Those who could grab the net.
- Those who could touch the rim.
- Those who could grab the rim.
- Those who could dunk through the rim relatively small round objects such as a tennis ball or a volleyball.
- Those who could dunk.
- Darryl Dawkins.
I was eleven at that time, and this hierarchy coursed from my feet to my fingertips with wonder and need. I was in the first group, occasionally, sometimes able with all my might to jump and just barely feel the soft, puffy threading of the net hanging from one of the hoops in the junior high gym in Randolph, Vermont. I started playing basketball that year for a seventh grade team that would lose every one of its games, and so it was the year when I began to identity myself with the bottom of hierarchies. Accompanying that identification was an intensification of a fantasy life built on various notions of power and flight.
That hierarchy gave way over the years to other, more nebulous ensnarements. I never did get to the sixth level. I got close. Once I even sort of pushed one through on an outdoor rim, but because I was never able to duplicate the feat anywhere else I’ve come to believe that the rim was slightly lower than regulation, or that I was dreaming.
Dreams come and go. I’m pushing fifty now, an age when it’s not really possible to envision life as a rising. But life will always be astounding. Think of barely being able to touch the bottom of the net and then discovering that elsewhere in the world someone was able to leap up and dunk with such force that the whole backboard shattered to pieces. The counterpoint to the feeling of losing isn’t winning, exactly. It’s imagining what Darryl Dawkins could do.
Seventeen-year-old me: You wrote a book? Is it like On the Road? [lights bong]
Current me: No, it’s not really like that. It’s off the road. It’s about when I became a dad. The first year or so of that, kind of losing my shit and whatnot.
Twelve-year-old me: Whatnot? What is whatnot? And when did you become a dad? No way you were as old as Dad when it happened. That was one thing I never wanted to have happen, be a dad that old.
Current me: I was even older! It took me a long time to, I don’t know, get my shit together. Not that my shit was together when the baby came. In fact, that’s when I realized how far from having my shit together I really was.
Eighty-two-year-old me: You wasted your life. It’s right there in the book—getting so upset with yourself that you punched yourself in the head. Who does that? Nutjobs, that’s who. And you know who’s paying for all the blows to the head?
Current me: Who?
Eighty-two-year-old me: What?
Current me: Who is paying for all the blows to the head?
Eighty-two-year-old me: What are you talking about? Where . . . where am I?
Twenty-four-year-old me: Wait, is this your first book?
Current me: No, I’ve written a few. Two “real” ones, and by real I mean they are both intended to be—sorry for the pretentiousness—literary, plus they also have the theoretical element of one day involving royalties, plus another short one that’s also real and that I love but it’s really short so I hesitate to count it, and I know all this talk about counting is ludicrous. Anyway, there were also a bunch of nonfiction children’s books that I wrote for practically nothing when I started getting sick of dealing with belligerent gangs of teenage shoplifters at the liquor store.
Twenty-four-year-old me: Yeah, tell me about it. I’m surprised to see you, actually. I figured we’d be shot in a holdup by now. But so why are you punching yourself in the head? What the fuck are you complaining about? And the kid—he’s your biological kid? Yeah? So you got laid at least once and possibly even with at least some regularity and are maybe even married, yes? Happily? Yes? Jesus Fucking Christ. You got laid, you’re in love with your wife, you’ve written books, and you’ve got a kid to, you know, love and everything and—
Current me: Two kids now.
Twenty-four-year-old me: Two kids! To stand there by your bedside when you’re this guy [uses a thumb jerk to indicate eighty-two-year-old me as the latter is meandering blearily out of the conference room] and about to check out. So what’s the problem? Do you know how lonely it is to be me, and how fucking frustrating to be filling up notebooks day after day with pure shit that no one will ever read? I’m the guy who should be punching himself in the head.
Current me: You did punch yourself in the head. If memory serves—and my memory is already going—you were the one who started the whole practice. Or somebody did. Maybe it was even earlier. Did you start doing that?
Twelve-year-old me: I don’t know. Last year I almost got hyperthermia walking in the ice storm for six miles the day I was so mad that little league team practice was cancelled.
Current me: Yeah, that’s the same basic idea. I don’t know why we want to punish ourselves.
Seventeen-year-old me: [blows out bong hit, coughs for several seconds] So the whole book is, uh, you punching yourself? That’s where I end up? What about beauty, dude?
Current me: No, it’s not just me punching myself. But the few people who’ve read the book seem to seize on that as its defining aspect. I just wanted to honestly show what that first year was like. The thing I wanted to get across more than anything was the beauty. It was way beyond anything I’d ever seen, and it almost wrecked me.
Twelve-year-old me: Ugh. I like funny stuff. Is it funny? Does it have sports? If it doesn’t have funny and sports I’ll just stick with my stacks of Mad Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Current me: It’s actually all about sports—it’s an encyclopedia of sports failure. It was the only way I could think of to talk about that first year, to use losses large and small to talk about my life. To get through it. Some people think it’s funny. Some people think it’s sad. I laughed while I was writing it.
[Eighty-year-two-old me re-enters the room. He seems surprised that there are people in the room.]
Eighty-two-year-old me: I thought this was the way back outside.
Current me: No, uh. But I think we’re wrapping up, so—
Eighty-two-year-old me: I must tell you in all honesty that I seem to have defecated in my pants.
When Bill Walton first met the bench, he greeted it with utter dejection. You want life to be one unbroken moment of play, but it won’t be. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to come off that bench again. This happened to Bill Walton when after a long exile as an oft-injured Clipper he joined the Celtics, my favorite basketball team. When this transaction occurred, it was for me like when, a few years earlier, Mark Fidrych was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox. Both had been legends of the 1970s not only for their truncated, spectacular professional accomplishments but for the way the two longhaired free spirits represented the wide, spazzy wonder of the times. Fidrych, despite my hopes, never made it back onto a big league field, a failure that weighted the acquisition of Walton with pessimism. Beautiful comebacks never occur, I believed. I had been in junior high school, that national institution for pessimism, when Fidrych arrived for his futile last stand at Pawtucket, and Walton’s arrival in Boston occurred three years later, in the fall of 1985, a few months after my expulsion from high school. I wasn’t sheltered in any kind of institution, pessimistic or otherwise, for the first time in over a decade, was living in Boston with my aunt and uncle, had nowhere to be except to wander around town and smoke pot from a one-hitter and pretend to look for a job and fish the Globe out of the trash, which is probably how I found out about the pulling of Bill Walton into my world from oblivion.
Please just let him be healthy for one season, I said. I remember the words if not the specific moment. Probably I was holding the gleaming garbagecan news in my hands. Call it a prayer.
And it worked. For that one season, 1985-86, Walton’s faulty body miraculously held up, and the Celtics had a dream season just when I needed it most. I’ve never enjoyed anything in sports more than that team, that season, and when I think of that season I think of Bill Walton flicking a behind the head pass to Larry Bird on a backdoor cut. I think of Bill Walton’s uncanny vision, the way he could see the court with something bordering on omniscience. I think of Bill Walton awakening. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. I think of Bill Walton beaming with joy.
My guess is that the picture at the top of this post is from the following season. The starting five all show evidence of having been in a game, but Walton, the Sixth Man for the ’86 Celts, seems to have not taken off his sweats in a while. He’s benched. This is what happened to him after that one miraculous season—his body started breaking down again and he never managed to stay on the court for long. It was a disappointment, especially since it contributed to the Lakers being able to beat the Celtics in 1987 and claim the “team of the decade” crown. But Walton mainly seems to have taken it in stride. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize how lucky you’ve been, or maybe even how lucky you still are to have a seat so close to the action.
This past weekend something happened that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was at a golf course where my wife’s parents spend a lot of time. My four-year-old, Jack, likes it there. There’s grass, for one thing, which he doesn’t get a whole lot of in the city. Also, there are golf carts. He loves riding around with his grandpa. So the thing that happened was nothing special, really: Jack rode off in a golf cart with his grandpa. I was on the bench, as it were, to see it. More exactly I was sitting at an outside table overlooking the course. I knew that Jack knew he was about to zip out into the wide greenness and go bouncing over bumps. He was wearing the Avengers baseball cap he had picked out for himself at Target, and it was a little askew, and he was sitting straight up, attentive. I’m at a loss to explain my joy. To see my son happy!
I’m lucky. I’ve been benched, my life defined by the bench, and this has all been through no doing but my own. But to be benched and to see such a thing, to see my life open in such a way.
This weekend I’ll spend all the time I can with Jack and with my other son, Exley, who just turned one and is on the brink of walking, and on Sunday right before they go to bed for the night I’ll be heading to Soldier Field to see Bill Walton’s and my favorite band, the Grateful Dead, in what’s being billed as their last show. My friend Pete will be there with me and has been asking me what I think they’ll play. I’m trying not to think too much about that so that whatever they play won’t have to battle in my head with any hopes and expectations. But I can’t help hoping I hear Eyes of the World. Life is a long, gradual benching, but in that benching, I believe, there’s the possibility of awakening, of seeing, of joy.
I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. I thought I’d seen all I’d ever see, and anything in my path from here on out would be familiar repetition. I didn’t have the courage to push past that resignation.
Here’s a scene from a game that never happened on a bench that no longer exists. It’s from The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a 1977 movie with which I’ve long been obsessed. In the movie, generally considered to be a notably inferior sequel to its 1976 predecessor, The Bad News Bears, the titular little league team travels without parents in a customized van from California to Houston to play an exhibition game against the best little league team in Texas in between games of an Astros’ doubleheader. The Texans pummel the Bears for a few innings, and then suited functionaries hustle onto the field to call the game early.
“Time’s up,” one of them says. The head umpire awards the game to the Texas team, which begins to celebrate. The Bears, stunned and disappointed, walk off the field, with one exception.
I can feel myself getting choked up as I start to think about the exception. It’s been this way for thirty-eight years, ever since I first saw the movie in the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont.
My new book came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s about my eyes, how they were wrenched into seeing something new despite my failing nerve, my resignation. It’s about my first year or so as a father. It’s about my son Jack. I took the day off from work on its release date to celebrate with Jack and my wife and our own little spin-off sequel, a second boy named Exley. We went to the children’s nature museum and both boys had a great time. When it was time to go, Jack didn’t want to.
“Where’s everybody going? We’re not finished!”
These are the words spoken by the one player, the Bears’ shortstop Tanner Boyle, who refused to accept that the game in the Astrodome was being called to a halt. It could also stand as the message vibrating through every fiber of Jack’s body when it’s time to move on from a moment he’s enjoying.
That’s life, right? You have to just accept that sometimes the game, the fun, is just over. Right?
Consider a sublimely talented player pictured on the bench in the background of the photo. On the left, in the warm-up jacket: that’s J.R. Richard. In the years directly following the filming of the scene he would become one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. Then in 1980 he would suffer a stroke and never pitch in the majors again. This is more dramatic but not essentially any different from anyone’s story, which is: the game ends.
However, in the moment shown here, the bench has begun to react to a push back against this eventuality. Tanner has begun eluding the two men in suits who’ve been ushered forth from some invisible authority to pull him from the field. The Bears have begun enjoying themselves again. In a moment the Astro on the far right, Bob Watson, will say, “Let the kids play,” and the lone non-uniformed figure in the picture, Mike Leak (William Devaney), the star player’s estranged father, who has recently been enlisted as the previously, luridly unsupervised team’s coach, will pick up the notion and begin rallying the crowd with a chant that will become what the sequel is known for, if it’s known for anything:
“Let them play!”
The chant builds, Tanner keeps eluding the suits. Every time I see this, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times, my eyes moisten.
This past weekend my family went on a charity walk that involved one loop around a big lake. Back in the days when I’d thought I’d seen all there was to see, one loop around this lake would have been nothing. But the sun was beating down and the baby kept yanking off his sun hat and beating his head against my wife’s chest and Jack kept wanting to sprint everywhere but along the route we were supposed to be taking. There were dandelions everywhere, and he wanted to pick them and gather them and blow on them because he remembered that dandelions in another form were capable of this dispersal. I explained that dandelions go through a process, going from one thing to another, and only when they’ve changed to gray dusty bulbs can you make a wish and blow their seeds everywhere.
“The seeds scatter and go into the ground and make more dandelions,” I said.
“Dandelions make dandelions?” he said.
“Why do dandelions make dandelions?”
How do you answer this? Dandelions make dandelions make dandelions. But why?
“Come on, we’ve got to get around this lake,” I finally said.
“But why do dandelions make dandelions?”
I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. Now I know I have no idea where it’s going or even why. Sometimes—to be honest more often than not—I feel like the suited functionaries trying to wrestle Tanner Boyle into complying with their rules. It’s time to go. Why? Because! But sometimes from where I sit I’m beginning to see, even enjoy, unstoppable endless dandelions seizing the field.
To be continued.