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Brett Butler

November 17, 2019

Brett Butler

“What is the point of life?”

My son asked me that last night. He’s eight and asks a lot of questions. He wasn’t asking this question rhetorically, as a bitter, narrowing complaint, as I often have. He wanted to know.

I started saying words, haltingly, clumsily. It felt like I was trying to put up an unfamiliar tent at night in the rain. The tent directions in my mind—what I was wrestling toward with my answer—were something along the lines of the point of life being an ongoing attempt to figure out the point of life. What a shit-ass shelter! But maybe it didn’t really matter so much. Before I’d finished jamming the last of my ill-fitting mumbly tentpoles into place, Jack was already asking another question.

“What happens when you die?”

***

In a way the moment has passed, the play in our view over, and in another way it is being extended, is still in doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the standing figure, the square-jawed All-American fellow with the square-jawed All-American name. He has been and will continue to be for some years an excellent  major league, adept at every facet of the game within his grasp to master, which is to say that he wasn’t graced with the ability—from nature, from God, who really knows?—to drive the ball far enough to clear fences with any regularity, but he was fast and smart and driven and highly coordinated, and he hit for a high batting average and drew walks and stole bases and fielded his position well and about as close to flawlessly as anyone has ever come, committing just 41 errors in 2,213 career games.

The prone fielder, who would have an even better career and end up in the Hall of Fame, is shown here in just his second year trying to mask his callow stature with a flimsy mustache, and you can see the very same expression in his face that’s in the cancelled baserunner’s face above him—too immediate to be defined as curiosity, but related: a breathless waking at the core of whatever it is to be alive.

If we’re standing tall, if we’ve been knocked down, if we’re sent here from God, if we’re the product of some accident—it’s the same at the core for all of us:

We all wonder what will happen.

***

This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don’t punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can’t remember the last time I did it. I don’t particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don’t particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I’m going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There’s no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.

***

If you asked Brett Butler, a devout Christian, the point of life, he would have an answer that could be illustrated by this baseball card.

“I believe if Jesus Christ was a baseball player,” he once said, “he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.’”

I don’t share Brett Butler’s specific beliefs, but I think his message could be one I could adapt to an answer for my son that would be better than me trying to explain my affinity for staring at baseball cards and writing about baseball cards and writing about life and sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall:

The point is to find something you love and do it as well as you can and try to find love for everyone in the world, even those you might come into conflict with.

Brett Butler would have an even clearer answer to my son’s other question, about what happens when you die. In a 1996 article dealing Butler’s battle with cancer, he said, “I’m not afraid to die. I know if I die, I’m going to heaven.”

***

I know what happens next. Not in life, not after life is over. But I do know what happens next in the moment depicted on this baseball card. The photo on this 1990 baseball card shows a game between the Giants and the Padres in San Diego during the day. In the 1989 season there were only a handful of games that fit those parameters, and in only one of them was Brett Butler involved in a force play at second base. It was the third game of the season, on April 5. Butler drew a walk off Ed Whitson to open the third inning for the Giants. Robby Thompson hit a groundball to shortstop Garry Templeton. Templeton got the ball to Robbie Alomar to force Butler out at second. Alomar threw to first while falling to the ground. His throw was not in time to get Robby Thompson. Butler had succeeded in breaking up the double play. There’s no record of whether he then picked up Alomar and told him he loved him.

***

I don’t know what happens next. But I can tell you that tonight during my pre-bedtime conversation with my older son, he asked me about demons and devils and angels and hell and heaven, and somehow we ended up imagining Spongebob Squarepants getting kicked out of both hell and then heaven for annoying the residents of each place so much with his unwavering enthusiasm for life. The angels in particular couldn’t believe he was so fixated on there being a Crusty Crab for him to flip crabby patties at in Heaven, and when he kept wailing that the Crusty Crab was what gave him meaning they finally booted him out of the clouds and he landed with a thump back down in Mr. Crabs’ office, where the boss docked him for missing time at work.

“But, Mr. Crabs, I was dead!” Spongebob wailed.

“That’s no excuse, Spongebob!” roared Mr. Crabs.

Jack beamed at me as I simultaneously wrote, directed, and acted out this episode. He kept waiting with attention and wonder to see and hear what would happen next, and in the telling and in his listening and in our love I’m reborn.

“So I guess Spongebob was reincarnated,” Jack said. This is a concept that Jack has been drawn to lately.

“Hi, Squidward!” I chirped as Spongebob.

“That’s what happens,” Jack said.

“Oh, no! You again,” I wailed adenoidally as Squidward.

“That’s what happens, I know it,” Jack said. “We come back.”

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John Smoltz

November 5, 2019

John Smoltz

My father’s books fall apart as I read them. The one I’m reading now, The World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe, crumbled into two pieces at the page 92–93 spread, in which Howe talks about Lillian Wald, a nurse who started the Henry Street Settlement and helped impoverished new immigrants like my grandparents, and perhaps did help my grandparents, or even my father. I don’t know. I saw this massive book on his shelf for years and wanted to read it, knew I should read it, knew that it would open up the mostly closed book of his childhood. I wish I had. I can’t ask him any questions now.

I tried to read, on yellowing pages folded into the book, his tiny notes. He dated the notes, so I know he read and thought about the book, and maybe about the history and trajectory of his own family, in 1985, the year I was expelled from boarding school for using alcohol and drugs. As was his habit, he crossed out most of his writing, second-guessing himself and his own ideas. He did turn over the crossed-out page and take some more notes and didn’t cross those out, but his handwriting is so cramped, another reflection of his unconscious attempt to minimize himself as much as possible, that I find it nearly impossible to read. I can pull out fragments—

Social construction of the Jew in western culture . . .

Jew as conscience of society . . .

Shaping of Jewish roles and self-definitions from [illegible] . . .

—but only enough to want to be able to ask him what his thinking, though even if he was still around and I could show him his notes, he probably would have waved them away. Or maybe he wouldn’t—who knows? That’s the thing: all he is now is a construction in my mind, growing ever farther from whoever he actually was.

My father also clipped and tucked into the back cover of the book the 1993 obituary of the Irving Howe. The large text pulled up as a mid-column excerpt—“His passion was ideas, his lifetime cause democratic socialism”—could have been my father’s epitaph. Howe was born a little earlier than my father, in 1920, and grew up in the Bronx rather than in the main setting of Howe’s book that’s been falling apart in my hands, the Lower East Side, where my father was born in 1925 and where, according to Howe, the newest, poorest immigrants massed before being able to venture father out into the outer boroughs, deeper into America.

There are other ways in which the obituary suggests that Howe may have had a somewhat firmer childhood footing in this land than my father. Howe’s father ran a grocery store, and even though the store failed, the mere fact of there being at least a brief period of ownership points to a relationship with America that was stronger than the one experienced by my grandfather, who worked in sweatshops before either receiving a head injury or succumbing to debilitating, if undiagnosed, mental illness, or both, and either way no longer being able to work, and finally, late in the Great Depression, dying by suicide.

Another obituary detail that paints Howe as a more strongly rooted American than my father is the mention of “occasional trips to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth (‘the greatest man in the Bronx’) play.”

The quote, apparently taken from Howe’s own writing, reveals a reverence for baseball, and so could never have come from my father. My father was more squarely situated on the other side of the Old World/New World divide about that subject, which I read about this morning and took my own notes on a yellow post-it, which is also slipping out of the pages and will slip out of the grasp of my own sons, if they ever feel the urge to search for me as I’ve been searching for my father. You can see my notes in the photo at the top of this page, next to my baseball card bookmark.

The notes refer to some mentions Howe makes to baseball. He’s not focusing in his book on baseball, but it comes up as he talks about the rift between the immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the children they were raising in America. Many of those children gravitated to baseball, a first step into something joyous and physical and free in the new world. Their parents didn’t understand it, dismissed it, feared it. My Uncle Joe, who was several years older than my father and grew up on the streets, fit this model, learning the game and following it all his life. My father was the youngest in the family, relatively protected, pointed with all the force of his mother’s love toward study, and so it’s not surprising that he internalized the view of baseball surely held by his immigrant parents, who no doubt held a view similar to the one Howe unearthed in a letter from a worried immigrant parent to the daily Yiddish newspaper, The Forward. It’s something I can imagine my father saying, something I can see myself absorbing unconsciously as his dismissive, distancing response to the all-consuming passion of my childhood:

What is the point of this crazy game?

***

For most of my life this crazy game was very near the center of who I am, and so when the recent World Series seemed to come and go at such a distance from me, I had to consider that I don’t know who I am anymore.

I skipped even trying to see the first two games altogether. I can’t say that I was organized enough in my thinking to call this avoidance a boycott, but it wasn’t totally unrelated to that sort of a stance. I catch snippets of the happenings in the world, mostly from glancing encounters with social media, and those snippets generally cause me to view the world in a dimming light and, in turn, to withdraw to an ever-farther remove from the happenings. One of those snippets—a member of Astros management proudly taunting female journalists about the presence of a perpetrator of domestic violence on the Astros roster—caused me to say, and not for the first time, Jesus, why do I even bother with this shit?

But who am I without baseball? A couple weeks ago, when the World Series was still unfolding, my older son happened to ask me what it is I know best. I knew the answer instantly but fought it, because, first of all, what good does it do me, or anyone? Second of all, where can I go from here? I’m not going forward with this area of knowledge. I’m not going to become more engaged with the current version of the game, an increasingly stagnant narrowing into the monotonous all-or-nothingness of home runs and strikeouts, each of those outcomes once among the most exciting moments in the game but now grimly radiating the actuarial inevitability of corporate strategy, each punctuated more often than I care to see by the momentary victor aggressively grabbing his penis and testicles. The game, the business, belongs more or less to horrible billionaires assholes and post-pubescent millionaire dunderheads. But what am I going to do? It’s too late for me to be a geography whiz or potter or know the names of birds.

“Baseball,” I told him, sort of miserably.

And so that night I tried to tune into the World Series telecast, which I assume still features the fellow partially pictured at the top of this page, John Smoltz, in the color-commentator role offering (as I am here) sour, self-aggrandizing denouncements of the present state of the game. But we don’t have cable, and one of the tendrils in the antennae contraption we use to pick up regular network TV broke off a while back, and it’s getting harder to pull in any of the stations. I waved it around, held it over my head, moved it to a couple slightly different spots, and then, after two or three minutes of this, I gave up and streamed an episode of a TV show about fictional horrible billionaire assholes. A few nights later, for Game Five, I more or less repeated the process of attempting reception, again to no effect. When the series reached Game Seven, I did what I usually do when there are problems I can’t solve, but even the resolver I married couldn’t get it to work. If the Red Sox had been involved, or—because of my friends who are fans and my old connection to the Steve Henderson teams that my father used to, despite his deep-seated distaste for sports, take my brother and me to see—the Mets, I would have kept trying, or bought a new antennae, or gone to a bar, or something. This time, it being Game Seven, the best I could do was pause for a few minutes in my streaming of the show about the billionaire assholes and listen to the Nationals radio broadcast on my phone for the last three outs.

There, I thought. I in some way paid attention to the World Series. I haven’t disappeared from this world altogether. Not yet.

***

My grandfather never played with my father. I’m sure of that. They had very few interactions at all. There was a walk to a park, which may have been on the same day as a walk to a synagogue that my father remembers as having beautiful stained glass windows. There was a strange conversation very near the end when my grandfather asked my father about school and implored him to keep studying hard. My father, at that point so used to considering my grandfather as a silent stranger in their tiny tenement apartment, says he didn’t respond to this apparent last attempt to connect. He was too shocked. And then my grandfather was gone.

My father didn’t play with me. Or if he did I don’t remember it. He must have at least tried to participate at some point, because I somehow absorbed the awful understanding that he didn’t really know how to throw a ball. He was for the most part a gentle, if sporadic, presence and tried to be there for my brother and me when he could, and he did take us to those games at Shea Stadium every summer when we visited him. But he was, I understand now, primarily a reader of books, and at most moments in his life it would have been his preference to be reading.

It’s the same with me. I even have a T-shirt, from the bookstore where I met my wife: I’d rather be reading. But I want to play with my kids, or rather want for them to have a father who plays with them. And I try. But there’s always that “I’d rather be reading” ache, and I suppose my boys pick up on it, absorb it as their legacy in a family line of fathers and sons who have trouble with the mess and chaos of play, who prefer the apparent, illusory order of words.

But every once in a while I hit on some way in which I can find some game we all like. A few weeks ago it happened when they were hurling some of my old baseball cards all over the room. I got the idea to adapt the simple card game War to baseball cards. We’d all gather a stack of cards and put down a card one at a time, and whoever presented the best player at each turn would win the turn and the other two cards. I made the decision in each case, using what it is I know best. My younger son got bored quickly and went back to hurling cards around, but my older son loved it. He especially loved the 1989 Donruss John Smoltz rookie card in his stack, as each time it came around it allowed him to win a card from me.

“He’s the best. Can anyone beat him?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

“I don’t want to lose him,” he said.

“I know what you mean,” I said.

***

At a playground today, I sat on a bench and watched my sons play with two other boys. They are slowly learning that this is more fun than dragging me onto the playground. I felt a wave of relief and gratitude for this development and for them and for everything I’ve been given in my life and suddenly imagined my father sitting beside me. His thin legs crossed, his backpack on his lap, his long, bony fingers resting on top of the backpack. Inside the backpack, what? Vitamins, pens, a case for his hearing aid, a thick book fattened by some folded pages containing his tiny illegible handwritten notes. I imagined asking him about the book he was reading, and telling him about the book I was reading, and the two of us both watching my boys run and laugh and swing sticks around like swords, authoring imaginary worlds that arose and dissolved as quickly as the windy eddying of the dry, fallen leaves all around them. And for a second he was there beside me so palpably that I started to cry.

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Marty Barrett

August 30, 2019

Marty Barrett

Marty Barrett was often able to manipulate baseball reality, to make himself or the ball seem somewhere it wasn’t. This skill came out most memorably in his mastery of the hidden ball trick, which he pulled off several times. I haven’t been able to unearth any video of Barrett performing the hidden ball trick, but you can read an excellent Boston Globe retrospective of his devious exploits, and you can get some idea of his preternaturally nimble body and mind in this clip of him duping Billy Ripken. Marty Barrett was a magician.

***

Did you ever feel like you had an almost magical certainty that a player at bat was going to get a hit? I remember getting that sense sometimes with Nomar Garciaparra during the hottest streaks of his glory years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’d be watching him go through his series of obsessive pre-pitch tics, and a conviction would arise within me: Screaming liner into the gap coming up. And I was right every time, or so it seems to me now. A decade earlier, while sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium, I remember being convinced by something in Darryl Strawberry’s body language as he sauntered to the plate that he was about to pound a soaring shot into the right field stands, which he promptly did. It’s not exactly a miracle that I had premonitions of success about two of the more talented hitters of my lifetime, but the first player I remember having this psychic connection with was Marty Barrett, a decent but decidedly unspectacular slap hitter from when my childhood was ending.

For most of my life to the point of Marty Barrett’s arrival in the majors, I’d been a kid growing up in rural Vermont, staring at baseball cards, listening to games on the radio, studying the Sunday batting averages, and once a year going to a game at Fenway. The game existed, for the most part, in my mind. It was really only in the summer of 1986, Marty Barrett’s second full year with the team, when I was 18, that I began to actually see major league baseball on a regular basis. I spent that summer at my grandfather’s house on Cape Cod, which had a television that picked up the Red Sox games on Channel 38, and I distinctly remember as my grandfather sat in his remote controlled La-Z-Boy, eating Cheese Nips, and I sat beside him in his remote controlled hospital bed, raising and lowering my torso periodically, how Marty Barrett’s hot streaks would appear to give him an aura of potency. When he had it, I felt certain that he was going to line a base hit into the outfield. And he would!

Like all magic, I guess, my predictions of Barrett’s success can be explained by the mirrors and shadows of probability and perception. Barrett’s hottest streak of that summer coincided with what would have been my heaviest period of watching, late June into early July, after I quit my job as a canvasser for Greenpeace and hadn’t yet accepted that I was going to crawl back to the gas station I’d worked at the summer before to beg for a job. During a fourteen-game stretch in that span, June 23 through July 7, Marty Barrett collected 26 hits in 55 at bats for a .473  average, plus 7 walks for an on-base percentage of .532. Predicting that he was going to do well in any given at-bat during that phase was about as much a miracle as flipping a quarter and guessing which side would come up.

But magic is based more than anything in need. Marty Barrett was my portal into magic, into believing that the magical season that I had always been waiting for was finally appearing.

***

I know how to make a quarter disappear. It’s the one magic trick I ever learned. I learned it the year Marty Barrett starting playing professional baseball, in 1979. I was eleven years old, and after reading about the trick in the Magic Wanda column in Dynamite magazine, I performed it once, successfully, before retiring forever as a magician. I couldn’t take the burden of deceiving someone, of knowing the trick, of knowing the mundane source of wonder in the eyes of the tricked, in my case a slightly younger kid at school named Aaron, who thought that I was able to rub a quarter so hard on my forearm that it disappeared. I knew the truth of how I’d made it look like I had done this, and I told him immediately. He was disappointed, or maybe the more accurate term would be disillusioned. He would have preferred not to know. It had been for the thinnest moment a thrill to pull the trick off, but I couldn’t bear it even for a few seconds and didn’t want to have any part of it again.

I preferred to be the witness to magic, rather than its author.

***

In late October of 1986, in a dorm room in northern Vermont, I watched with three other Red Sox fans on a little television as Marty Barrett laced a single into centerfield to drive home Wade Boggs and give the Boston Red Sox a 5–3 lead in the top of the tenth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. From the start of the playoffs all through his at-bat in the top of the tenth, there had been a magic link between me and Marty Barrett, that feeling of certainty that was absent from any other part of my life. I watched and expected a base hit, and virtually every other time he came to the plate he delivered, winning the American league Championship Series Most Valuable Player award and performing even better in the World Series. In the bottom of the tenth inning, with the Red Sox one strike away from a World Series championship, the television broadcast brought up a photo of Marty Barrett, and he was congratulated as the player of the game.

One night a few weeks later, after all notions of magic had collapsed, I walked from my dorm to the empty building next door, which housed classrooms and administrative offices. On the first floor, just inside some double doors, was a vending machine. I was hungry, or maybe just bored. I put some money in, whatever it was in 1986 to get a candy bar or some chips, and made my choice. I don’t remember what it was, or what prompted me to start pressing more buttons once the metal spiral started to uncoil my selection, but I did start pressing more buttons. I also don’t remember what exactly my style was at first as I pressed those buttons, but once some tremors and sparks began emanating from the machine, once other metal spirals began shuddering and then uncoiling wrapped chocolate tubes and little plastic bags of salt and fat, I began rolling both my hands over as many of the buttons as I could. Bags of chips and candy bars and gum thunked down into the plastic catcher by my shins. Thunk! The machine began to smoke. Thunk! Thunk! Most of the spirals kept spinning until they were empty. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Finally, the glorious malfunctioning ceased. There were only a few products left inside the machine. I took off my jacket and shaped it into a makeshift sack to haul every bright mass-produced piece of this miracle back to my dorm.

Before I tell the rest of that story, which I’ve probably told you before, I want to revisit another story that’s been told many times, of the famous ten-pitch at bat by Mookie Wilson that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series in the bottom of the tenth inning. Just before the ninth pitch of that at bat, Marty Barrett stood on second base and yelled at Bob Stanley to turn and throw to him. Barrett had snuck over and, in the estimation of television color man Joe Garagiola, had Mets’ baserunner Ray Knight dead to rights. Stanley needed only to look and see this, and then to turn and toss a reasonably accurate throw to the sure-handed second baseman. By then the lead established by Marty Barrett’s run-scoring single had evaporated, and the game was tied, but at least the inning would have been over.

The Mets were well aware of Marty Barrett’s intelligence, and had probably even prepared to be on their guard against him. In Roger Angell’s report on the 1986 World Series, “Not So, Boston,” Angell veers momentarily into a meditation on Doc Gooden’s dip in performance from 1985 to 1986, and after quoting Barrett’s observation that Gooden’s problem was with his mechanics, Angell writes, “One of the Mets regulars said to me, ‘If Marty Barrett says anything like that, you can believe it. Anything from Barrett is a message from Western Union.’” But Barrett, like the greatest magicians, could manipulate his illusions even when everyone was consciously trying to avoid being entrapped by them. He found a blind spot in Ray Knight’s vision and slipped through it like a portal to the second base bag. However, Bob Stanley neglected to look back at him and, over the Shea Stadium din, couldn’t hear him shouting. Mookie Wilson fouled off Bob Stanley’s ninth pitch and, as you know, slapped the tenth pitch of the at bat on the ground up the first base line.

***

When I got back to my dorm with my coat full of snacks, among those who glimpsed my magical cache was the girl of my dreams. I’d had many girls of my dreams before that particular girl, whose name I can’t even remember, if I ever even knew it, and I’d have many girls of my dreams after that particular girl. She was perhaps the prototypical example of the central figure in this recurring, formative fantasy of mine, which relied on anonymity, uncrossable distance, and long, vague scenarios of complete and utter knowing of one another deep inside forever. My connection with this girl amounted to a few times in which she crossed in front of me on a walkway between buildings while I sat on a bench outside the library. She was small and cute and seemed shy, and I imagined the two of us magically connecting to shed our poetic loneliness. I was profoundly a virgin, eighteen years old and still without a kiss from anyone except my mother. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk to a girl, and even less of a conception that leering dreamily at one from a bench might have produced discomfort or worse rather than, say, some acknowledgment of the invisible pulling I was imagining myself to be doing, and then some sort of magical, reciprocal pulling back. Like all my dream girl scenarios, nothing came from my benchwarmer leering and daydreaming, but for a moment that November, on the night of the vending machine miracle, I thought it might.

She was with a guy, whose name I do remember, Paul. He was a year ahead of me in the creative writing program at the school and seemed to be garnering the most attention from the school’s two writing professors at that time. I envied him. It was unclear if the two of them were boyfriend and girlfriend, but they seemed to be in some sort of league together. In retrospect they were probably both stoned, which tends to produce that “in-league-with” feeling. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but the three of us ended up going back together to the vending machine. I wanted, I guess, to show this girl the magic I had found, and handing her a tiny bag of Doritos wasn’t doing the trick. I needed her to see what I had seen, a smoldering, absurd bounty piling up at my feet.

She put coins into the machine and pressed a button at random.

“Press them all,” I said. She did, hesitantly, and then I joined in, using my rolling palms method. Paul stood off to the side a little, smirking. Just one thing had thunked down into the plastic catcher. She reached in and pulled it out, and I guess I’ll remember what she said for the rest of my life as she looked down at it in her hands.

“Smoky bacon shit chips,” she said.

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Ed Kranepool

August 14, 2019

Ed Kranepool

Ed Kranepool looks like he’s probably having fun, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s leaning on a batting cage with a bat tucked under his arm, a sign that he’ll soon be getting a turn to take some cuts. He’s been playing major league baseball for a while, and at this point he’s near the end of the road, but he’s not there yet, and even though at the time of this photo he’s in the midst of a down year he’s recently put in his best string of seasons of his career, batting .300, .323, .292, and .280 over a four year span from 1974 through 1977. What a hitter! So why wouldn’t he be happy by the batting cage? This is what he lives for.

***

This is what you lived for and why you lived.

I read that line this morning, not for the first time, but for the first time since I became a father. It’s in the Alfred Slote young adult novel Hang Tough, Paul Mather. I wrote about that book on this site over eleven years ago, which is probably the last time I reread the book. I read it several times when I was a kid and several more times as an adult, but this time a moment in the book hit me in a way that made me realize I hadn’t before experienced the novel as a father.

The book’s narrator, Paul Mather, utters the line about what you live for and why you live after touching a baseball for the first time in over a year, feeling it, throwing it, slowly at first, and then, once he’s warmed up, finally doing what he loves best in the world: pitching. At this early point in the novel all that’s known is that Paul Mather is seriously ill, so ill that he’s been ordered by his doctors and parents to avoid physical activity, including baseball, and so when he begins firing fastballs, changeups, and curves to Monk Lawler, a fellow 12-year-old in a town he’s just arrived in to get treatment for his illness, I always get a lump in my throat. It was that way the first time I ever read the book, when I was a 12-year-old who lived for baseball. I could imagine that taking baseball away would be like taking life away.

It was no different this time. I’ll always root for Paul Mather as much as I’ve ever rooted for anyone on a baseball field, real or imagined. But on this reading, the tail end of the scene of Paul Mather holding and feeling and pitching a ball hit me in a new way. Paul’s exhibition is stopped by his father telling him to come inside. Paul notes that his father doesn’t sound mad, and that there’s something about his voice that made him think that his father had been watching for some time. I had to put the book down to stop the lump in my throat from getting bigger. I looked to my right, where my two sons were giggling at Spongebob Squarepants.

This is what I live for, I was thinking.

***

Ed Kranepool could be doffing his cap. I salute you. I thank you. That’s what I thought he was doing for the past few weeks. Night after night after my sons went to bed I came downstairs and looked at Ed Kranepool and imagined he was a talisman of gratitude. Why wouldn’t I? Earlier this year he received a kidney transplant, without which he wouldn’t be able to still be among the living. On a more personal level, why wouldn’t I want to find through him some way of expressing my own gratitude for my life, my family. For you too. When I was Paul Mather’s age, baseball was mostly what I lived for and why I lived. But when baseball slipped from my fingers, I started grasping for words, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Words without a reader are OK, like holding a baseball and feeling the potential of it, the faint hint of a pulse. But words only really come alive when they’re read, like when Paul Mather went from holding the ball to pitching it to Monk Lawler. Thank you for reading these words. This must also be what I live for. I’ve been doing it ever since I stopped living to throw a baseball, and I’ve never been able to stop throwing words.

Yes, Ed Kranepool could be doffing his cap. That’s what I believed for weeks. But tonight for whatever reason that view fell away. He seems now to merely be holding his cap up to shield the sun. Maybe someone has just directed his attention to someone or something out on the field that he was unable to see without angling his cap in such a way. Whatever, who knows? Ed Kranepool is simply passing the time, looking around, shooting the shit. Waiting for another chance to get in the cage and spray a few line drives all over the sunny field.

***

This afternoon at a park down the street from our house I pitched a few underhanded tosses to Jack, my older son. My wife was nearby on the playground with my younger son, which was allowing Jack and me to concentrate a little more than when both boys are with me, and the two of them end up fighting for turns. Jack hacked at the first few with an axe-wielding motion that he favors, and I decided to try to coach him a little. I didn’t do much, just got him to put his hands together on the bat and to bend his knees and balance his weight on both feet and swing more or less level.

“And watch the ball,” I said. “Watch it all the way.”

He missed a few while getting used to this new approach but finally connected and sent the ball flying over my head, farther than he ever had in his whole short beautiful life.

This is what you live for and why you live.

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Gary Lavelle

July 22, 2019

Gary Lavelle

Gary Lavelle’s best moment occurred in New York City less than a week after the 1977 blackout that left that city without power for 25 hours. In the standard public conception, that blackout featured looting and arson, if not an overall sense of society on the brink of collapse, but I didn’t experience any of that. I was telling my sons about it a few days ago. I was driving them to a place in Chicago that sold New York style pizza slices that they liked.

“All the lights went out everywhere.”

“Didn’t you bump into things?” my older son asked.

“Maybe we had some candles,” I said. I actually couldn’t remember what we did inside my father’s studio apartment for light, but as soon as I proposed this theory I saw my father’s desk, stacks of papers and books and classical music cassettes on it, and now, in my mind, there was a candle at the edge of it, casting a flickering light through the tiny apartment as the sounds of a city in darkness floated up to us from the streets below.

***

My desk has a stack of books and a stack of baseball cards. Gary Lavelle has been at the top of the stack for a while. I hoped and still hope that at some point I will be able to move seamlessly from the writing of one book to the next, but my writing life has and probably always will be defined by long, solitary stretches that go on for years and years. Maybe in those silences something is gathering, maybe it isn’t. Maybe I have something to say about Gary Lavelle, maybe I don’t. The days go by, the nights, the weeks. His tinted glasses, his sideburns, his shadow on the artificial turf. I come to the desk again and again. My father did the same, although not with baseball cards but with thick books on sociology. He leaned on his elbows every night and read. All those words that went into his brain—where are they?

***

One of the books stacked on my table is a 1961 autobiography of Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks. I’m probably reading it to try to stay connected to my father. When he was a boy in the 1930s, growing up poor and Jewish in New York, as the Marx Brothers had a generation before him, he had watched all their movies in the theater when they’d first come out. I imagine him sitting there in the darkness, laughing, happy.

I told my boys a story from the book, about how Harpo had been continually thrown out his first-story first grade classroom window by two Irish classmates. (One day he got tossed out and decided to never come back, ending his formal education.) My boys were fascinated by that story and wanted to know more, so I showed them some Marx Brothers clips. The clips were, of course, created close to a century ago, back when my own father was the age of my sons. I laughed. My boys laughed. I imagined my father with us, laughing too.

***

Gary Lavelle had made the 1977 all-star team on the strength of a sub-2.00 ERA, and the National League manager, Sparky Anderson, whose “Captain Hook” nickname attested to his status as an early advocate of bullpen specialists, tabbed him as the first pitcher in from the bullpen after starter Don Sutton handled the first three innings. Sutton had been excellent, blanking the American League on one hit and one walk, but Lavelle was just as good, if not better, adding two more zeros to the scoreboard on one hit and no walks. He struck out two Hall of Famers, Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Jackson, and bested two other Hall of Famers, George Brett and Carlton Fisk, while racking up his swift six outs. It’s not a performance you ever hear about when legendary all-star game feats come up, but in those few minutes that Lavelle was on the mound at Yankee stadium under the blazing electric lights, he mowed down some of the best baseball players who ever walked the earth.

***

“What about in the streets?” my older son asked me.

“I guess it wasn’t totally dark. There were cars with headlights. People had flashlights.”

I actually didn’t remember walking with my brother and father through the streets with a flashlight, but I remember walking up six flights of stairs in a pitch black stairwell to my father’s apartment, and I remember the three of us holding hands as we did so. I’m not sure if this—or anything—is literally accurate, but it’s emotionally accurate. What I remember about the blackout is being brought closer to my older brother, who was often trying to get some separation from me, and closer to my father, who had stopped living with us a few years earlier. So I always imagine us holding hands as we rose through the darkness. Forgive me if I told this story before. It’s one of the best moments of my life, even if it may not be altogether true.

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Bill Buckner

July 2, 2019

buckner

I used to see the years of my life as cleanly as those on the back of a baseball card. Lately everything’s running together and accelerating. Lately I became a father, lately I lost my father. Lately I wonder what’s mine. What’s anyone’s?

“Jesus, look at how tall Jack is,” I said to my wife today as our oldest son walked by. She and I were sitting on a bench in a little park near our house. I remember when Abby, pregnant with Jack, drove the two of us by the park the day we came to look at the condo for the first time.

Our kid can play there, I thought. That memory, a clear one from just before the years began running together, seemed as I sat on the bench as if it had just happened.

“Life’s going by fast,” I said now.

“Yup,” Abby said, “and we’re fucking it up.”

Before I could ask her what she meant, exactly, one of our boys did something to the other, or took something from the other—who knows? It just happened a few hours ago and already the details have dissolved.

Lately I watch my sons claim pieces of the world for their own, not just possessions but hurts and stories and desires. Lately I scattered my father’s ashes, packed up his books and toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. Lately I dug around in my baseball cards, looking for one player in particular, and because it took me a while to find this player within the entropic chaos of my collection, my mind wandered to the future, not far beyond the expanding borders of lately, to where my own sons will be sifting through the very same cards in my absence, packing them up with my guitar pics and Trident gum and notebooks, scattering my ashes.

All you are is a brief awareness. I’ve felt it most keenly in moments that seemed in retrospect like premonition. The time I looked across a bookstore where I worked at a coworker with a pink stripe in her hair and wondered. The time I rode by the little park by the condo for sale and wondered.

Is this mine? Is this my life?

The relentless momentum of time turns the question into a statement. You clamber, always, awkward with hurts and desires, forward. To paraphrase a Denis Johnson notion from the novel Angels, you move to meet your responsibilities. That must have been the familiar synaptic flash in Bill Buckner’s mind when he reckoned the direction of that ground ball.

Mine.

You move toward your life and your life moves toward you.

***

It was never about the ground ball. It was about escaping a burden.

***

That fall I lived in a suite in Arthur Hall on the campus of Johnson State College. The drinking age changed that year from 18 to 21, but anyone who had just turned 18 was grandfathered into legal drinking. I lived with seven other guys in the suite who were my age, 18, or thereabouts, and we spent that one brief stretch of months in which our lives intersected drinking so heavily it was as if we misunderstood the loophole allowing our legal drinking as a requirement to drink until we puked our punch-colored guts out our third-story windows. There were keg parties, Everclear parties, parties where we bought several cases of cheap beer we called Green Death and guzzled the bottles and went into Luis Tiant windups to hurl them against the concrete wall of the common area, shards of broken glass piling up like green ice. There were whole weeks when the booze and the potent marijuana smoke from a waist-high Graphics bong made the carpeted floor of the suite pitch and rock like the deck of a ship, and we all staggered around laughing and woozy and aimless and immortal. The seven other guys were my friends, or so I would have said at the time. None of the friendships lasted. None of the seven guys except me even lasted so much as two more semesters at the college, let alone graduated. None of them kept in touch with me, nor I with them, nor any of them with one another, so far as I know.

I remember them all. They as much as anything are mine.

***

After digging for an hour or so, I found in my refurbished computer box full of cards a 1986 Bill Buckner. The story on the back of it is told almost entirely in numbers and begins in 1968, when my own story began. That’s when Bill Buckner, at the age of 18, reported to the Dodgers’ minor league club in Ogden and batted a blistering .344. He moved into and through his life with great purpose. He took this rare gift that is this life and made all he possibly could of it. In 1985, the last year of statistics shown on this card, the 35-year-old Buckner played in every one of his team’s games and established career highs in hits, doubles, and RBI while equaling his personal best for home runs and stealing 18 bases.

We fucked it up. You, me, everybody.

***

The day Bill Buckner died, I watched the Mookie Wilson at-bat. It was the first time I’d watched it since it had happened 33 years before, when I watched it in the suite in Arthur Hall. It’s a long at-bat, aptly described as epic in most reports. But to me, watching it unfold, foul ball after foul ball slicing all over foul territory in every direction: it’s like watching the snapping undulations of a downed power line. Finally a ball is hit fair, and Bill Buckner moves toward it. It’s a tougher play than it looks. With Mookie speeding up the line, Buckner will have to field it quickly and cleanly and either pit his injury-slowed body against a player with Olympic sprinter speed in a race to the base or shovel a perfect toss to another slow-moving teammate, pear-shaped Bob Stanley. The ball on its third bounce stays down. Why am I explaining this to you? You know as well as I do that everything we know, everything we’ve ever touched, will slip through our grasp.

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Howard Johnson

April 21, 2019

Howard Johnson

Dazzler

Two

In the 1920s, a debt-ridden small business owner in Quincy, Massachusetts, doubled the butterfat in the ice cream he sold at the soda fountain in the back of his pharmacy. The ice cream quickly began to sell so well it was almost as if some supernatural magic were involved. Soon enough, the pharmacy as such ceased to exist, as the ice cream became the building block of a restaurant that the man named after himself, which was in turn so successful he opened another restaurant of the same name a few towns over. The two restaurants were recognizable as reproductions of one another not just by name and identical culinary offerings. Each restaurant had a bright orange roof. Over the next few decades, the number of orange-roofed restaurants grew. The concept of a franchised restaurant was not unknown at that time, but the level of national success of this new chain was unprecedented. The franchise blazed a bright orange trail across the land.

***

When the player shown here arrived in the majors, the orange-roofed restaurant empire built on doubled butterfat was nearing its twilight phase, its great growth over the previous fifty years slowing, not too far from being driven out of business altogether by the monstrous fast food chains in its wake. But in 1982, when this player debuted, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were still everywhere, a ubiquitous bright orange American repetition, and so when I heard there was a guy in the majors named Howard Johnson, it seemed ridiculous. I don’t think I was alone with that reaction, and even though after a few years people got somewhat used to his presence, his sudden leap in 1987 from an uneven platoon player to a dynamic superstar with a rare combination of power and speed was greeted with suspicion. Why the suspicion? He had been a number 1 draft pick; he’d shown ample glimpses of power and speed in the minors and in his part-time stints in the majors; and in 1987, when he was finally given the opportunity to find the rhythm of the game as an everyday player, he was 26, which is a common age at which promising players hit their prime. My theory is that if he’d had a name that didn’t remind everyone of ice cream and bright orange roofs, he would have been hailed more quickly as a blossoming talent, instead of the more dubious treatment he got, which peaked with several overt in-game accusations that he was, as it were, illegally doubling the butterfat in his bat. His bat was X-rayed six times throughout the season, each time with the intent of finding cork inside. The photo shown on this card is from the following season, 1988, his smile like that of a man found innocent, which is indeed what happened, each time. No butterfat in the recipe, no cork in the bat. He was not ridiculous but for real. Like his namesake before him, he had simply found an answer, and at least for a little while, he was full of possibilities. He was on the rise.     

***

Sometimes it feels like you’ve got your hands on the dazzling answer. I don’t often feel that way. More often I feel like I’m weighted down in one or another kind of debt. Or I feel like I’m not getting the chance to figure out a rhythm to life. Or I feel like I’m a fraud, a wielder of something doctored, altered, corked. But today, another Sunday, it got warm again, and this time the rain stayed away, and I stood in the alley next to our building beside my older son and held the handlebars of his bike in one hand and the back of his bike seat in the other. We’d just taken his training wheels off.  “We can give this a try, but remember,” I said, “if it doesn’t happen today, we can try again another time.” As a father, I favor this style of preemptive capitulation. (I’m a lot like Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away.) I fully expected the attempt to end with pronounced discouragement, if not a trip to the emergency room. But of course you probably already know that somehow, through nothing I did, despite my doubt, by the sheer grace of the universe, I touched magic today. We went up and down the alley a couple of times together, my hands on his bike, and then, still sure he was destined for swift defeat, I let go, and he wobbled and pedaled and . . . flew. I know that’s how it felt to him, because that’s how it had felt to me forty-five years before, and in my dreams of flying ever after I always pedaled up into the air, and now my boy Jack was doing it too, biking away from me past all the garbage bins I’d been sure he’d bash into, and he was on his way, and my empty hands sizzled as if they weren’t now suddenly after seven years empty but instead full of something ridiculously dazzling.