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Dale Berra

January 18, 2018

Dale Berra

The Indo-European root of the word euphoria seems as if it could also be the root of the word Berra. It’s bher. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, it means “to carry; also to bear children.” On October 8, 1956, the player shown here was being carried within Carmen Berra, who was attending a baseball game. The conclusion of this game offered up the template for baseball’s most resonant entry into the language of euphoria. The game was one of those rare instances in which the win itself is so staggering that it doesn’t seem to count until men are leaping on one another.

I’ve watched the end of this game and its aftermath several times. The pitcher, Don Larsen, perhaps still in the state of deep trance that allowed him to suddenly upend a relatively nondescript career with stunning brilliance, with perfection, shows little reaction at the moment of victory. After the final out, he takes two steps toward his dugout and then, as if sensing and wanting to avoid the maelstrom swelling up around him, begins to break into a slow loping jog.

Fortunately, Larsen’s catcher is up to the unique demands of the moment. After bouncing out of his crouch, he quickly motions with both hands, like a conductor or a choreographer, as if he’s trying to direct Larsen to follow the miraculous illogic of the moment and start floating. As he continues bounding toward Larsen he senses that his pitcher will not be capable of the unprecedented manner of rejoicing required, so he’s the one who leaves the earth.

We do this sometimes. We don’t stay up forever. We fly into one another arms.

We are carried.

***

No son can ever be free of the ghost of his father. Consider this 1980 card featuring a confident, handsome young man ready to take on life on his own terms. The back of his card lists a number 1 draft pick distinction alongside some promising minor league stats, but these intimations of future glory are crowded out by a large, artless cartoon sporting the obvious information connecting the young man to his father, who in addition to catching the only perfect game in World Series history and then creating with his leap into Don Larsen’s arms the template for baseball euphoria was also the winningest, most beloved player in major league history.

Dale Berra was himself a World Champion at the time this card came out, the recipient of a full share in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series prize money despite being a September call-up who arrived to the team too late to be eligible for postseason play. In fact he was barred from even sitting on the Pirates bench in the playoffs. In the remaining seasons of his decent but unspectacular 11-year career, he wouldn’t get anywhere near a title again. Like the rest of us, he’d never get the chance to catch the final out of a season and leap into a pile of roaring euphoria.

***

My six-year-old and I sit side by side sometimes and yell and laugh and curse and bring one another back to life. We hold devices in our hands that allow us to control the movements of two cartoonish avatars of presumably Italian descent with mustaches not altogether dissimilar to the one worn by the young man shown here.

“Pop me out of a bubble!” my son squeals. And I jump up and free him and together we go on. But really it’s much more often that he’s freeing me. He has a knack for staying alive. I die easy, again and again, and because he’s alive I get to go on.

I thought about the two of us sitting side by side and playing and laughing tonight as I was sifting through the online traces of Dale Berra. Right up at the top of the Google pile for Dale Berra is an ad he’s in for Atari back in the mid-1980s, just when that kind of virtual living and dying was starting to take hold in the world. In the ad Dale Berra’s electronic altar ego, a hungry circle, is ceased by a ghost.

***

Dale Berra’s father was, among other things, a mediocre major league manager, at least by the measure of his lifetime record, in which his failures slightly outnumbered his wins. His final major league win as a manager brought his lifetime record to 292 wins and 293 losses. He went on to lose three more games before, as often happened with people in his position, i.e., the manager of the New York Yankees, he was abruptly fired. That final managerial success by Dale Berra’s father was surely heightened by the contributions of Dale Berra himself, who that year had become only the second player in major league history, after Connie Mack’s son, to play for his father in a major league game. Dale went 2 for 4 at bat and started a key double play in the field.

That was in 1985. Later that season another lasting association would get attached to Dale Berra’s name when he admitted to cocaine usage while he’d been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. From then on, schmucks such as me with blogs and Twitter feeds and all the other ways in which to disseminate our shallow associations would think Dale Berra? 1. Yogi’s son. 2. Cocaine.

He tried it first as a very young man at a New Year’s Eve party to kick off 1979, a year that would crest with his team at the very top of the world. He liked the feeling. Who wouldn’t?

“It made me feel euphoric,” he explained.

***

My father was a brilliant student and scholar. I heard this from the friends he made in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We were all in awe of him,” his friend Marty said.

He had grown up very poor during the depression. His family had to suffer when his own father was unable to find work. The lack of work itself seemed to eat most deeply at my grandfather, who eventually took his own life, leaving my father without a father before he’d reached his teenage years. Who can say what burdens this puts on a person? All I know is that there were a couple of times along the way when my father came to a fork in the road, and down one road was a life of scholarship and financial uncertainty, and down the other road was a steady job. I believe the last of these forks came with the arrival of my older brother. My father had been in graduate school at NYU, but he stopped short of earning his masters, instead focusing on working full-time to support his new family.

Many years later, after he retired from a long and useful career as a sociological researcher for various state and city agencies, he used his NYU alumni status to get a card that allowed him entry to the NYU library on the south side of Washington Square Park. The card included a certain number of guest passes.

One day we went to the library together. I was gathering information for a young adult biography I was writing about Confucius. My father was researching whatever he was interested in, probably something having to do with Marxism or World Systems Theory. We sat at a table by a window several stories above Washington Square Park, both of us with tall stacks of books beside us, both of us silent, both of us reading. We were up above the trees, side by side, trying to understand, trying to know. We were both very much alive, and as long as I’m able to carry the memory we always will be.

***

The person I’m most drawn toward in the clip of the final pitch and ensuing celebration of Don Larsen’s perfect game is not Larsen or Dale Berra’s father but a figure who disappears almost as soon as the clip starts. It’s the pinch-hitter, who stands there for a moment in disbelief as the pitch is called a strike. It’s a somewhat famously blown call, but it was decided in that instant and forever after that we won’t really care so much about that. But the pinch-hitter does. He looks befuddled. The moment is famous for perfection, for joy, but life is not defined by those things. Life is for us most often what it is for the man at the plate whose name, according to an interview with Dale Berra by the baseball historian Bob Hurte, would be seized on by Yogi Berra’s wife, Carmen Berra, at that moment as just right for the child she was carrying.

Dale Mitchell checks his swing and, knowing the truth of the pitch he’s just let go by, turns toward the authority behind him, the ump, as if to appeal to him, but it’s too late. It’s just the same as if there’s no one there at all to look to, to beseech, to implore. And then this Dale is gone from the clip, leaving behind for the player on the card at the top of this page his name, to be joined with the other much more famous name from that moment, a preposterous combination, as if to be human is to be suspended in a thin bubble in midair somewhere between euphoria and knowing.

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Nelson Santovenia

January 14, 2018

Nelson Santovenia

Every once in a while Nelson Santovenia shows up somewhere unusual. A few years ago, he appeared inside my guitar. And here he is now in my garbage. Why, you may ask, is there a baseball card in my garbage?

There are baseball cards in various places in my home. The cards from my childhood in the 1970s are in a couple of shoeboxes. My sons now each have a shoebox of their own, filled with some cards that have split off from two large plastic bags of random cards from the 1980s onward. Those bags are now buried in a closet, because I’m tired of cleaning them up. My sons aren’t card collectors yet, and I tend to doubt they ever will be. They like to dump the bags of cards out and fling them around the room. They’ll eventually “help” gather the wreckage, but I always get impatient with the pacing and unfocused nature of this effort and end up angrily lurching around and stuffing the cards back into the bags. This will probably loom large in my sons’ associations of baseball cards with their father: a frustrated ogre snarling vows about this being the last time anyone plays with baseball cards.

Inevitably, I miss a card or two. Later I’ll find it stuck under a chair or in the crack between couch cushions. In the past I’ve then most often placed them on a bookshelf, an intermediate step toward getting them back in the plastic bags that usually gets stretched out for quite a while and bugs me on some level. My life is always partially undone. I’m always rushing from one thing to the next, one kid needing food, the other needing help to climb up to a terrifying height atop the treadmill, my face needing a shave before work, work, a novel in unrealized chunks festering in notebooks in my file cabinet, an appointment to make with a doctor to jab his finger up my anus because it’s finally about time for that glorious rite of passage, etc.

So I made a new policy—any baseball cards from those bags that don’t make it back into the bags at the first cleanup are no longer part of my world. What’s the big deal? I have no deep association with any of those cards. They came to me after childhood as thrift-shop gifts or occasional nostalgic purchases of packs at Target or whatever. They didn’t fuse my goddamn psyche. And they certainly aren’t worth anything in a monetary fashion. They’re garbage! Right? No more nor less than the drier sheets, tissues, and packaging for a pair of tension pulley things that my wife is incorporating into her workout regime. But this morning while playing with my sons, I was pretending to be Megatron, who I guess is a foe of the Transformers, and my sons were blasting me off the bed to the ground via various means such as fart blasts and pillow pummelings and pro-wrestling style leg launches, and down there on the carpet, a smoldering and defeated robotic hulk of villainy, I noticed Nelson Santovenia where I’d discarded him, among the trash, and he didn’t seem to fit in with his surroundings. I couldn’t make him fit in with his surroundings. I could not make him mean nothing. So I took him out. He’s on my desk right now, yet another item in that messy, forever unfinished collection, my life.

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Ken Holtzman

January 11, 2018

Ken Holtzman

What lasts? Not mustaches, not dynasties, not childhood, not life. It’s all pretty much like the clouds shown here that disassembled soon after the photo was taken. The sky got bluer or grayer. The sky is always changing. At some point there won’t even be a sky.

I don’t know the names of clouds but I know Ken Holtzman pitched two no-hitters, won three World Series in a row with the A’s, and collected more wins than any other Jewish player in history, including a win over his idol, Sandy Koufax in the latter’s last regular season start.

I know my grandma was born in the 1800s in Austria-Hungary and died in a Jewish nursing home in the Bronx called something like the Daughters of Judea. My dad took my brother and me there once. She tried to foist a banana on me. Eat, eat, she implored. She’d had six children but only four lived beyond infancy. But no fucking way was I eating that banana. I hated and still hate fruit. Someday there won’t be a sky but until I croak, perhaps of scurvy, I’m clinging with all my might to my bizarre childhood aversion to the very symbol of this world’s sweet bounty. My god was I disgusted by that bruised banana thrust at me by my age-crumpled grandmother. She loved me, and all I wanted was to leave and buy several packs of baseball cards and open the packs and jam all the gum into my mouth and never have to look old age or love in the wrinkled face again.

Now, decades too late, I wish I’d realized then how deeply indebted I am to her. She kept my family alive, kept them going. Without her, I’m not here. My boys aren’t here. Someday there’ll be no sky, but that’s nothing in the face of the gratitude and love I feel right here and now for my family, old and new.

I like how in this card Ken Holtzman’s glove is unseen, so you can actually believe that he doesn’t have a glove and is not aping a pitching follow-through but extending his left arm to escort you on a promenade. I wish I could have thought to reach my arm out to my grandma the way Ken Holtzman is reaching his arm out here.

But it’s far too late, so instead I take Ken Holtzman’s arm, just the way I did back in 1975. I’ll always take his arm. Someday perhaps I’ll be as old as my grandma and I’ll have trouble walking and I’ll be lonely and institutionalized. I’ll still have Ken Holtzman. I’ll take Ken Holtzman’s arm. Wispy clouds behind him will remind me of something, but I won’t be able to put a name to it. He’ll be cheerful and respectful and soft-spoken. He’ll be steady. He’ll support me. We will take a long, slow walk out into the day.

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Red Sox Future Stars

January 7, 2018

Red Sox Future Stars

The other night I surfaced into consciousness at 4 or 5 in the morning and worries about my job seized me. I couldn’t shake them—nagging chaotic anxieties about all the thousands of things flying at me on deadline. I’m gonna miss something, I’m gonna fuck up. Eventually I just got out of bed and meditated for a while in a chair in the kitchen. It helped a little. There’s a basic goodness in us, in everything, shining beneath the lacerating illusions. We are stardust, we are golden. When Jack woke up and came out to the kitchen, I was able to listen to him, to see him. He was smiling and looking at me with his bright blue eyes.

“Daddy, I had the craziest dream,” he said. “I was flying.

I remember having a dream that I was flying when I was a kid. I can’t really place it in time, but it could have been in 1980, the year I met this card. I was twelve then. I’ve come to think of that dream, where I bounded up into the sky and flew around my town, as a response to an increase of gravity in my life. The years leading up to 1980 had seen me bounding every morning up the road to a multi-age free-school classroom where we made animated movies and wrote plays and learned Russian and sat in a circle sometimes or lounged around sometimes. By 1980 I’d shifted to a junior high several miles away with desks in rows and time sliced up into anxious chunks. Instead of one warm teacher and a lot of long-haired parent helpers I was now under the glancing authority of a collection of grown-up strangers who identified me in one way or another as a problem.

Meanwhile the Red Sox were also crashing to earth. They’d come close in 1975, 1977, and 1978, but in 1979 they’d finished a distant third, and it would get worse in the years to come, a little worse every year, more or less, throughout the rest of my descent through junior high and high school, where I went from Cs to occasional Fs to, finally, in my senior year at a boarding school, expulsion. That was the year I discovered getting high, thank fucking god. Thank god for marijuana! Getting expelled was no fun, being driven home from that school for two hours by my poor grim mom was no fun, taking the GED was no fun, but getting high with my friends saved my life, if you define life by the notion of having some interest in living it.

When you’re a young child, if you’re lucky, as I was, you get this sense that the future will include stardom. I’m not talking about fame but rather the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and you open a new pack of cards and find a card featuring a player or, in this case, players, from your favorite team. Connection to some kind of brilliant glory. A kind of flying. A high. By 1980 I had probably felt the gravity of the world just enough to not believe the proclamation that the players in my hand were future stars. I knew who they were already, as they’d all made appearances with the Red Sox in 1979, and Chuck Rainey was the only one who’d shown any glimmers of hope, but even his promise seemed subdued, as he seemed no better than a Bob Stanley type, at best. But still, it was a brand new card that I could add to my beloved stack of Red Sox, and I’m sure I felt at least a little of the pulse of the stardom at the core of this life.

I was talking on the phone the other day to my best friend from boarding school, Billy Z, the one with whom I rediscovered that life could have some laughs in it, some highs, some joy. For the last twenty years or so he’s been a Montessori teacher. I was telling him that we’re homeschooling our boys.

“Dude, that’s the best thing you can do for them,” he said. I was glad to hear him say that. I said something about how I love following their lead, seeing where they want to go with their learning.

“That’s the basic idea at Montessori, right?”

“Yeah, the tough part for my kids is when they get to junior high and it’s suddenly all about nothing but punishments and rewards. A lot of them just shut down.”

After I got off the phone I thought about how that was exactly what had happened to me. And I thought about how meeting Billy Z was one of the most important things that ever happened in my life. By the time I met him, in 1983, all the Future Stars featured in this card were gone from the Red Sox, all out or on their way out of forgettable major league careers, and I had completely stopped collecting baseball cards, releasing that habit and joy of childhood as if I didn’t deserve it. I was learning nothing in school except to believe that I was a problem, and I really didn’t have any friends. My mom saw this light going out in me and thought boarding school might help, and though I didn’t rediscover learning there, and in fact became even more buried under a feeling of academic failure, I did make a friend, Billy Z, with whom I laughed like I hadn’t in years. We’d sit there in our dorm room beds in the dark laughing and high, all the failure falling away for a little while. It felt like there was life to be lived. We were flying toward future stars.

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Dick Lange

January 1, 2018

Dick Lange

The truth about Dick Lange surfaced in 1970 but like most truth is mostly if not entirely obscured. I certainly never noticed it all the years I’ve been in possession of this unassuming 1975 card. In 1970, while in his first year in professional baseball, pitching for the Angels’ rookie league team in Idaho Falls, Dick Lange was perfect. He went 13 and 0.

Tonight as I was getting my older son ready for bed he started asking me about how he could keep himself from having bad dreams about Bowser, this spike-backed monster who is the last hurdle to clear in his Super Mario video game. My son worries a lot about monsters and guns and bad dreams and meanness. I tried to tell him not to worry about bad dreams, but tears started streaming down his face.

The perfection didn’t last for Dick Lange. He lost about as many as he won throughout the rest of his career, which included parts of four years with the Angels, all of them on the same pitching staff with Nolan Ryan. Ryan, somewhat famously, also did not win that many more than he lost, which of course says more about the dubious nature of win-loss totals than it does about Ryan’s talents, which were the stuff of myth, as evidenced by the first three years he shared a dugout with Dick Lange. In each of those years, Ryan struck out well over 300 batters, a feat equaled at that point by fewer men in the 20th Century than had walked on the Moon (and over twice as many as Dick Lange managed in his entire career). The point is, even Nolan Ryan was a loser, repetitively, constantly, so what chance do mere mortals such as Dick Lange have to hold on to any kind of perfection?

I wiped my son’s tears with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I read him some Curious George. He went upstairs to his mom and fell asleep. My younger son was still awake, up later than usual because he’d had a nap this afternoon. He’s three and has been moving away from a daily nap, that last echo of infancy. This was the first time the nap happened in weeks. So he was up with me this evening for a while, and the two of us passed the time by, at his request, “playing chess,” which just meant that we pulled the pieces out of this magnetic travel set we have and then tried to put them back into their places. Each piece fits snugly in a felt indentation.

“Do you see one with a horse shape that could go here?” I said.

He tried to put the knight in its place in but had it facing the wrong way.

“How about this way?” I said, gently turning the piece around and handing it back to him. He got it in.

“You make this game fun,” he said. He fell asleep a little while later with me rocking him and singing him Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway” really softly. I kissed him on his curly head and carried him upstairs.

You began perfect. That hasn’t been lost.

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Roy White

December 27, 2017

Roy White

Roy White was a philosophical conundrum: Roy White was a Yankee and Yankees suck so Roy White should suck, but he didn’t. Reggie, Nettles, Gossage, Piniella, Steinbrenner, most especially that feathered-haircut shithead at shortstop: they sucked. But Roy White? He seemed OK. He seemed like the kind of guy who would help you out if you lost your mom in a supermarket. He’d at least take you over to where they could call your mom on the store PA. He’d probably say something fairly reassuring and stand around for a little while as you waited. Anyway, I like this card, which is not nothing. Our world seems pretty messed up these days, a fractured thing, divided, maybe unfixable, so I’ve decided to celebrate the fact that it’s possible to say something positive about a card featuring a Yankee. Honestly I find myself reluctant to say simply that I like this card, as if the meaning I’ve carved out for myself in this life rests to some extent on the duality I embraced as a child that was based in the ineluctable truth that Yankees Suck. But I can at least say that I like some things about this card. I like that Carlton Fisk is on this card. His birthday was yesterday. Roy White’s is today. I like that odd near-connection, as if they almost share something happy and irrelevant and invisible. I like the red helmet on Fisk. I like the look on Fisk’s face, which seems in its relative placidity and the angle of his gaze to suggest that the batted ball is on its way to Rick Burleson at shortstop, no trouble at all. But it’s not only Fisk that I like here. I like the tendons standing out on Roy White’s neck, and his expression too, which is so alert and awake as to suggest that this moment and any moment can transcend hope and whatever is the opposite of hope, that if you’re devoting yourself fully enough to paying attention to what’s unfolding in front of you, the beauty of life can manifest everywhere, even in a routine grounder to short, even on the card of a New York Yankee. I like his footwork, not only in that he is wearing Pumas, to me the coolest brand forever and always, but in that his front foot is cocked and turning toward first and no matter the relative likelihood of reaching base Roy White is about to break into a run. What is more beautiful than that feeling of running as fast as you can to first? Maybe only the possibility itself of reaching first safely, which I would never wish for a Yankee but which I am able to nonetheless ponder in its abstract by virtue of this card and most specifically by the somewhat bulky object in Roy White’s back pocket. I think this must be the soft cap he wore while manning the outfield. Back in those days players could still choose to discard their hard batting helmets once they reached base and replace it with their cap. Roy White was ready for this, and I find myself feeling that readiness too. Good things may yet happen in this world.

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Jerry Hairston

November 7, 2017

Jerry Hairston

Jerry Hairston is smiling here, who knows at what, or why. There’s a gleam of sunshine on his batting helmet, and sunshine too on parts of his away uniform and on the blurry crowd behind him. To me it’s a quietly happy moment, a man thinking about something amusing as he takes a lazy fake swing in the sunshine.

There may be some baseball card detectives who can pinpoint the location of this photo. I can only take a guess that the photograph was taken in Oakland, based on my general sense that a lot of card photos back in those days were taken by a Bay Area photographer named Doug McWilliams.

Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors in 1975, when the photo for this 1976 card was probably taken, and in fact a possible angle for this essay, or whatever it is, could be that Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors every single year of his career from his first call-up in 1973 until 1977, when he split time between two major league teams, and then after that year he dropped out of the majors altogether and played for three years in the Mexican League, a departure from the majors that must have seemed to anyone paying attention, if anyone was paying attention, which they probably weren’t, to be evidence that Hairston’s habit of periodically dropping out of sight throughout the course of a major league season had become permanent, but amazingly he returned to the majors in 1982 and stayed there for several more years, never once during that improbable resurrection suffering another demotion to the minors: the onetime utility infielder became a bit of a fixture, a pinch-hitting specialist, an expert, a pro. Yes, that could have been the point of this appreciation, and maybe it’s part of it, but really all I was going to say was that though Jerry Hairston shuttled between the minors and the majors in 1975, he was with the team during a late-September visit to Oakland, where perhaps this photograph was taken. If it was taken there, Jerry Hairston could conceivably, pun intended, have been aware at this moment that he was about eight months away from becoming a father of a child, boy as it turned out, who would be named Jerry Hairston, Jr.

The awareness of this kind of news is certainly something that can make a guy smile. It made me smile too, when it was my turn with that knowledge. It made me do a lot of other things, too, most of them in the family of panic. But there’s a certain feeling of something taking hold inside you, a more powerful tugging than you’ve felt before, as you walk around through sunshine and darkness, through the unstoppable flickering between major and minor, certainty and doubt, rising and falling. You take your usual swing and it feels empty, strange, unlike anything you’ve felt. But you know, ultimately, that now you have to keep swinging.

That casts a light on Jerry Hairston’s three-year disappearance from the majors that I never thought about before. Most of my words about these cards came years ago, before I became a father, so I’ve never really considered that a lot of the men on the cards in my shoebox were young fathers who were working at a job to support their families. Yes, Jerry Hairston kept swinging—and he must have also kept smiling, because otherwise how do you go on?—as he kicked around in the Mexican Leagues. What else was he going to do? He had a toddler and then, in 1980, another boy, named Scott, to support. And of course Jerry Hairston swung his way all the back to the majors. This is what you do if you’re a Hairston. There have been five members of the Hairston family in the major leagues, which I believe is the record for cross-generational families (there were also five Delahanty brothers in the majors, but that dynasty did not carry over to another generation). First there was Jerry Hairston’s father, Sam, who started out in the Negro Leagues before playing for the White Sox in 1951, and then Jerry’s older brother John, who had a brief stint with the Cubs in 1969, then Jerry Sr., who was followed several years later by his sons, Jerry, Jr., and Scott.

How this all relates to me is hard to say. I too am a younger brother and a father of two boys, so there’s that, I guess. But also, and more directly, Jerry Hairston’s smile made me think of the dance contest scheduled for this weekend at my house. My older son, Jack, had the idea a couple of nights ago.

“Let’s have a dance contest,” he said.

You never know where your life is going to go. Minors, majors, across some far border and back again.

So last night Jack and I made a trophy out of construction paper. It had handles and a support column and everything. The competition will include just the four of us: my wife, Jack, Jack’s brother, Exley, and me. Everyone has been practicing their moves. A few times this week I’ve been at work, in the middle of some problem or other, and I’ve remembered the upcoming dance competition and imagined all of my loved ones and me dancing and I smiled.