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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.

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Andy Hawkins

April 7, 2019

Andy Hawkins

Dazzler

One

Today, a Sunday, the toughest of days, it was warm, in the 60s. It hasn’t been that warm in a while. It’s been a long winter. “Want to go over to the beach?” I asked my sons. It’s often hard to get them to leave the house, but this time they were out on the sidewalk, waiting for me, while I was still tying my sneakers. When I got out there, I felt a few raindrops. We all pulled our hoods up and walked down the street. For a long time, it seemed like I’d never not be carrying one or both of them, and now here we all were, walking. As we crossed the street, a woman carrying a stack of papers in her hand veered over to us. “Yes, I have lost my cat,” she said in some kind of a European accent. She showed me the flyers. A small, black cat looked out at me. The three of us started looking for the cat as we walked on. We looked under cars and through fences. The rain started falling harder. We turned around and walked back home, well short of the beach. “Do you think she’ll find her cat?” Jack asked. “Yes,” I said. Later, and also earlier, and repeatedly throughout our lives, the younger boy, Exley, got upset that his older brother didn’t feel like playing with him, and so he started screaming at the top of his lungs with feral power. Jack has extremely sensitive hearing, so these screams are like knifing him in the brain. He gets as overwhelmed and angry as his brother, and both are hitting and screaming, and my wife and I are pulling them apart and trying to speak calmly and also often losing our fucking shit and at some point during this shitstorm I thought about Strat-O-Matic basketball, which I haven’t played in over thirty years. There was a thing on the cards called a “Dazzler,” which connoted a brilliant pass that led to an instant basket. Magic Johnson had a lot of them on his card. As I played it alone in my adolescent bedroom it pressed some numbing synapse in my brain that I have been addicted to in one way or another ever since. I want to not feel anything but that sizzling fiction of connection. Anyway, another Sunday a while back, my sons and I smeared glue and glitter on some cards. The one at the top of this page got the worst of it. On the back, which isn’t as thoroughly bedazzled, it’s possible to read a note about Andy Hawkins’s 11–0 start to his 1985 season. That’s the year I really started drinking booze and smoking pot. I’m more or less off all of that, but the impulse to obliterate everything with some glittering reversal of reality is as strong as ever. I don’t know what to do. I never have. At least Sunday’s just about over now, both boys asleep, but now it’s on to Monday, the toughest of days.

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Al Bumbry

February 14, 2019

Al Bumbry

Kingdom Come

Conclusion

Al Bumbry came home from Vietnam in 1971 and played baseball like a man hungry for life. Before going to war, he’d played one year of professional baseball, and it had gone poorly, the then 22-year-old college graduate batting just .178 with no home runs, no triples, and four doubles at Stockton, a single-A team in the Orioles minor league chain. After his tour of duty he was 24, the oldest player by at least three years (and in several cases as much as six years) on another Orioles single-A squad, Aberdeen. He batted .336, loudly, almost a third of his hits going for extra bases. The next season, 1972, the Orioles moved him up a rung, to their Double A club. It was in Asheville, North Carolina.

***

After we sprinkled some of my father’s ashes into a stream and then on the grave of Asheville’s most famous son, Thomas Wolfe, we spread the rest of him around the outside of the house he lived in with my mother for the last several years of his life. We saved the last bit for where his favorite cat, Calypso, was buried.

I’ve been working on this stupid post for several days and have dumped thousands of words into the void, missing the mark. I keep trying to define my father, to reach out somehow into the absence as if with a bat, like Al Bumbry is doing on this 1979 card, as if my father could grab hold and I could pull him back.

He’s not coming back.

***

In Asheville Al Bumbry came into the orbit of what would become one of the most famous and emotionally resonant father-son connections in baseball history. The manager of the Asheville club was named Cal Ripken, and his son of the same name was the clubhouse boy. Bumbry would recall many years later, as Cal Ripken Jr. was on the brink of breaking the hallowed record for most consecutive games played, that in Asheville the younger Cal dutifully shined Bumbry’s shoes. The father’s motto to his players was “give me a good day’s work.” The son echoed the father from his Asheville shoeshine days all the way to Cooperstown.

***

My father was hungry for life. He wanted beauty and art and transcendence and meaning. He wanted to go beyond the safe base. He wanted a better world. He was also, like me, crippled on some level with timidity. He hugged the safe base. I have seen this while poring over his belongings. There are letters from his friend, a sociologist who started out with him and then went on to write groundbreaking books of sociological theory. My father wanted to do the same, but judging by his failure to, despite his friend’s imploring, pursue a career in academia that would have supported the reaching for that extra base, that new territory, and judging more intimately by the style of his note-taking that I’ve also been poring over since he died—he has notes in all his books and almost all of them are thoughts that he second-guessed to the point of complete abnegation, crossing out his own words to the point that they are made unreadable—something was holding him back.

***

Al Bumbry kept up his hot streak in Asheville, batting .347 and earning a midseason promotion to Triple A Rochester, where he batted .345, which catapulted him in September to the Majors, where in 11 at-bats he laced 4 hits, including a triple. His blistering skein continued in 1973: He earned the Rookie of the Year award, batting .337 with 11 triples, including, as the back of this card points out, 3 triples in one game, which tied a major league record.

***

“If possible,” my father wrote in his will, “please spread my ashes by the cat.” It was virtually his only personal demand in the document. The other was that all his books be preserved whole by going to my brother and me. By the time we were ready to fulfill the wish about the ashes, we’d already decided that we were going to ignore a literal carrying out of his wish about his books. There were too fucking many. So I now have only fifty of them, almost all of them dense and huge, one for each year for the rest of my life if I live as long as humanly possible.

My father held me in his arms when I was first born. When there was just a little of him left I carried him in a box lighter than a baby to where my mom was pointing.

“Calypso’s up there in those bushes,” she said.

***

A triple, like life itself, is a beautiful fluke. It’s much rarer than an out, of course, and rarer than a single, a double, a home run. Any major leaguer can gather enough fluky luck for an occasional triple. Steve Balboni hit 11 in all, for example, one for each of his glorious years in the majors. But the record-breaking triple-hitter manifests the multitudinous glory of baseball itself. It’s no accident that the image that most often punctuates Pete Rose’s quote about how he’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball is of the All-Time Hit King flying headfirst into third base. The triple materializes from a tripling of rare abilities—the ability to hit, the ability to run, and the ability of wanting: wanting life, more life. Triples are the provenance of pitiless hungering joy.

A triple, like any individual life, is an incomplete act.

Someone else needs to bring him home.

***

As I clambered up to the spot where Calypso was buried, I thought about how my father doted on her. She was scared of or outright hostile toward almost everything else alive by the end of her life, but she loved him. She sat on his bony lap and purred as he gently brushed her fur with a comb. He loved all of us that way.

I looked over at my brother before I tipped out the ashes and started to cry. I was thinking, this is it. This is the last of him.

 

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Jerry Morales

February 5, 2019

Jerry Morales

Kingdom Come

Four

Tonight instead of watching the State of the Union address I looked for my father and for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. First I skimmed some of the emails my father sent me, each including a few words from him at most and then a link to sobering news. Sometimes it was just a link. I didn’t read the whole articles tonight, just as I hadn’t when he’d first sent them to me. Still, fragments lodged somewhere in my brain.

. . . rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades . . .

. . . abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts . ..

. . . the continuing acidification of the oceans (killing off the basis of the food web: coral, phytoplankton and shellfish) and more climate disruptions, an increased number of hotter days and extreme weather events . . .

. . . loss of polar ice, leading to sea level rise . . . will threaten the existence of low-lying island nations as well as major cities . . .

. . . mass extinctions . . .

I turned to a search for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. It’s what he was known for. He’s not the only player to ever use the basket catch—two immortals, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, also used it, for example—but Jerry Morales doesn’t have a whole lot else to fix him in time, so it seems like a bigger deal for him. I figured that everything is available now, digitally, that nothing is ever fully blown to kingdom come, but the truth is some things are just gone. All there is are some words, some memories.

There are no photos or videos of Jerry Morales making a basket catch, at least not that I could find. I took a few different angles in my search, Googling various combinations of his name and “basket catch.” At some point, I Googled Jerry Morales’s hometown, Yabucoa, and “baseball.” I learned that Yabucoa was hit the hardest of any place in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. I found a before and after photo of the Yabucoa baseball stadium. I gave up on Jerry Morales’s basket catch and turned back to searching for my father. I read some of a note he scrawled with a pen in tiny handwriting on note paper and folded into a book he was reading.

It is clear that the capitalist world system is coming to an end. The only question is whether the transformation to another system can be realized through a collectively democratic, pragmatic, gradual process resulting finally in the constitution of a democratic world system or in catastrophic destruction, possibly leading to the end of humanity.

(continued)

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Theories of Child Development

January 31, 2019

unless

Kingdom Come

Three

My father was a reader. My father wanted the kingdom of heaven to come. He wanted it here on earth for everyone, and he believed in the possibility of it here on earth, and he wanted to understand how it could happen, and why it hadn’t happened, and why there was injustice and inequality and suffering, and what was to be done. And so he read.

He read big, bursting novels as a child, Dumas and Dickens and Balzac and Hugo, and then as a young man and for the rest of his life he read philosophers and poets and psychologists and economists and political scientists and environmentalists and anthropologists and, above all, sociologists. He read about suffering and happiness and sex and crime and education and music and war and the beginning of the world and the end of the world. He was in the middle of dozens of books when he died. Last week, on the day before we spread his ashes, I packed my father’s books into boxes, stripping out all his makeshift bookmarks, losing his place.

I found this marker within Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. This relic from the long defunct Behavioral Science Book Club, is, as it happens, my cardboard twin, in that, judging from the date in the upper right corner, it probably came into my father’s possession within days of my birth, if not on the exact day.

We have some things in common, my cardboard twin and I, beyond both being a little over a half a century old. We both spent our life in the orbit of our father but obscured to him and him to us. With my cardboard twin and me there’s a persistent grasping, even as we begin to discolor with age, toward bringing the certainty of intellection to the unknowable mystery of the earliest years: my twin has the Theories of Childhood; I have all my cardboard markers, all these gods that came into my young hands in place of my father and long ago got stripped from whatever place they were holding. And with both of us there’s this sense of a debt, of a box forever unchecked, some part of life undone. Something is still to be delivered. Something is still to be received.

(continued)

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Tom Grieve

January 25, 2019

tom grieve

Kingdom Come

Two

“Will the earth last forever?”

My older son asked this a few days ago. He’s seven, the same age I was when I first held this 1975 card.

“Yes,” I said.

It was near bedtime, and near bedtime the night before he started panicking about tarantulas. The point is that near bedtime I will lie to my son about the impermanence of all things. I won’t tell him everything starts and ends with a flash, and there’s no start or end, and there’s no such thing as time at all, just the blazing light of kingdom come.

***

There’s no earthly reason for me to keep coming back to these baseball cards. And yet at the beginning of this month, the beginning of a new year, I pulled four cards out at random and spread them on my desk, and they’ve been here ever since, a thin, insistent barrier between me and earthly reasons. Ralph Houk with his glowing watch and air of impending resignation was the first card, and this one was the second.

It’s from 1975, the first year I started collecting cards, which was also my first full year away from my father. I had only recently learned to read, but when I first held this card in my hands as a seven-year-old, I’m sure I was able to read that simple, familiar first name: it was the name of my mom’s boyfriend. But that second word was more complicated. I didn’t know what it meant, didn’t know that it meant anything. Something was gone, and in its place was this: Grieve.

So I’ve been thinking about this word and its weight, and I’ve been thinking about fathers and about sons. Tom Grieve and his son, Ben Grieve, were both drafted in the first round of the major league baseball draft, making them, I believe, the only father and son duo with that distinction, but that’s not the father and son duo I want to get involved with here. Instead, allow me direct your attention to the father and son that I came across when this card brought me to an article about Tom Grieve’s biggest day at the plate, which also happened to be 10-cent Beer Night:

Meanwhile, the intoxicated crowd continuously misbehaved.

This included a woman running onto the Indians on deck circle and flashing her breasts and trying to kiss the umpire, and a naked man running onto the field and sliding into second base as Grieve hit his second home run of the game.

Also, a father and son ran into the outfield and mooned the fans in the bleachers.

***

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” – Thomas Wolfe

***

On Sunday in Asheville, exactly one year after a stroke wiped my father’s mind clean, my mother, my brother, and I drove to a path that was the last place where my father took walks. My father was along for the ride too, in a box on my lap.

All his life, my father walked. He walked all over Manhattan as a boy. He walked on the rising and falling paths of Thomas Wolfe’s hometown in his nineties even after recovering from a broken hip. He just walked slower and used a ski pole for balance.

On the drive I brought up on my phone a 2012 live version of Lou Reed’s song “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” and my brother turned on the blue tooth so that it could play through the car speakers.

Since they burnt you up, collected you in a cup, for you the cold, black sea has no terror.

We got to the parking lot as the song was swelling to a conclusion. My brother cut the ignition. We got out of the car and inched down the icy path against a biting wind. My mom started to cry a little, and I put one arm around her. I carried the box under my other arm. We headed toward a point in the walkway where my father, on his walk, liked to sit for a little while before moving on.

My mother, brother, and I got to the part of the walkway near the bench and stepped carefully down toward the edge of the stream. My mom took the first turn of dipping a paper cup into the box of ashes.

“Note the direction of the wind,” my brother said, wisely.

My mother turned her back to the wind and tipped the cup, and the ashes swirled and fell to the water and dissolved. My brother went next and shook all the ashes in the cup out into the wind. Then my brother paused and looked down in the cup. He looked over at me and then held the cup up so that I could see. At the bottom of the cup was a large metal screw.

I took my turn at scattering my father to the wind and water, eventually, but not before all three of us laughed until tears welled up and then froze on our cheeks.

(continued)