Tom Burgmeier

August 28, 2007


Chapter 6 (Continued from Bob Stanley)

So for a couple weeks in 1987 I had this job canvassing door to door for CalPirg. One day my supervisor was driving me and some other canvassers to our dropoff spots. She was a girl my age who was home for the summer from Macalester College. She asked us to say where we envisioned ourselves in five years. I sunk down as low as possible in the backseat. Another canvasser volunteered to start the round of answers. My stomach began to hurt.

The future to me had always been vague, millennial. I hadn’t ever envisioned anything specific happening but had occasionally daydreamed about enormous, shattering transformations, figuring eventually I’d somehow stumble from the lonely prison of virginity to acrobatically sex-drenched romantic love, from lazy self-absorption to saintly buddhistic enlightenment, and from the scribbling of impotent notebook ramblings to the mastering of some kind of volcanic artistic inspiration like the visionary fugue state that seized my hero Jack Kerouac throughout the three-week period in which he pounded out On the Road. I didn’t include any of these notions in my answer. I don’t remember what I said. I think I mumbled something about how I hoped I would still be alive. The Macalester coed looked at me in the rearview mirror, I guess waiting for more.

“Okay,” she finally said, cheerfully.

Later that day I was wandering around my assigned turf, a neighborhood in the town of Lompoc. I was terrible at getting contributions from people, but the day in Lompoc was worse than usual. Near the end of my shift I knocked on a door and a thin guy with aviator glasses answered. I began reciting the official CalPirg spiel in my customary hesitant monotone.

“Hello, my name’s Josh, and I’m with CalPirg. We’re in your neighborhood today talking to people about our urgent work advocating for the people of Calif—”

“Hey, let me ask you something,” the guy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How would you like to experience something a thousand times better than any acid trip?”

I always liked Tom Burgmeier, an unassuming lefty specialist who held up his end of the deal for otherwise ineffective Boston Red Sox pitching staffs in the early 1980s. He had a somewhat rough first campaign for the Red Sox, in 1978, posting a 4.40 ERA, but then as the Red Sox began to sink toward irrelevancy he posted ERAs of 2.74, 2.00, 2.87, and 2.29, respectively, impressive numbers especially considering he earned them while laboring in Fenway, commonly considered a left-handed pitcher’s worst nightmare.

I think in some ways I wish I was Tom Burgmeier. He always seemed so competent, so useful, even when—or especially when—the rest of his team seemed adrift in the aftermath of an unredeemable shipwreck. Again and again he’d trot in briskly from the bullpen to relieve a sweaty, imploding Steve Renko or Chuck Rainey, hold off the opposition for an inning and a third or so, then hand things over to Mark Clear or Bob Stanley, who would then cough up a couple more runs, rendering a late-inning rally by the still-fearsome Boston offense useless. The world was doomed, but it wasn’t Tom Burgmeier’s fault. He knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going.

The thin guy with the aviator glasses was staring at me, waiting for an answer. I looked down at my CalPirg clipboard, at my watch. I looked back up at the guy.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Why not?”

He ushered me into his house. He pointed to a pile of shoes by the door. I noticed then that he was barefoot. I kicked off my sneakers and followed him into an adjoining room. A thin Asian woman was there. She was barefoot, too. There were a lot of Buddha statues and candles on the mantle.

“I was like you,” the guy said. In those days people were always starting off their stories to me by saying “I was like you.”

“I was into drugs, booze, anything I could get my hands on,” the guy continued. “Always looking for the biggest buzz, the highest high. Well, let me tell you, there is no higher high than what you’re about to experience.”

“Please,” the Asian woman said, motioning toward a plain brown mat she’d just spread onto the floor. I kneeled down, then they kneeled down onto fancier, more colorful mats on either side of me. They both closed their eyes. Incense was burning. They started chanting.

“Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. . . .”

I joined in, keeping my eyes half-open. The three of us chanted for a few minutes, then they stopped.

“Nam—,” I said, still going. “Oh.”

“Wow, huh?” the guy said. He was smiling now. He put on his glasses and looked at me.

I felt all right, nothing amazing. Saying the same thing over and over does get kind of hypnotic. But mostly I just felt compelled to give the guy a positive response. I always wanted to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear, like the time I was hitchhiking and assured the enthusiastic Born Again Christian who’d picked me up that I would in the very near future be declaring Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.

“Wow,” I said to the guy in the aviator glasses. We were all still kneeling there on our mats.

“That was really . . . really something,” I said.

Tom Burgmeier was born August 2, 1943, in St. Paul, Minnesota (home of Macalester College). He signed his first pro contract in 1962, when he was 18. I suppose when I first obtained the 1978 card at the top of this page I may have read that information and vaguely envisioned a similar future for myself, a future which resembled my baseball-crazy present. But more likely I neither read that information nor foresaw myself signing a pro contract at 18. I didn’t really dream of being a baseball player when I grew up, because I never really thought I’d grow up. I’ve always held this evasive attitude toward the future, and I am always surprised when I notice that weeks, months, years have gone by. This may explain my stunned expression in photographs.

My childhood was not very structured. My mother believed that children should be given as much freedom as possible. I had countless hours to myself to do whatever I wanted. And even when I went to school my days meandered to a significant extent in the direction of my choosing, my multiage classroom founded on the free-school idea that children grow best when given the opportunity to learn (and not learn) whatever and whenever they wanted.

I don’t think many children growing up now have days that resemble my childhood days. Today the norm for a child seems to be that any spare moment outside school is to be clogged with structured activities, scheduled play dates and soccer practice and music lessons and courses designed to improve scores on standardized tests. Not much time for daydreaming. Not much time for wandering around or staring at baseball cards or just making shit up out of thin air.

There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would have been better off with more structure. Maybe the structure could have helped me learn early on to envision life unfolding in plannable five-year chunks of goal-attainment. The structure wouldn’t have gotten me to the major leagues, because I didn’t have any talent, but maybe I could have approached grownup life the way Tom Burgmeier approached baseball, with clear eyes and a firm sense of my place in the world, a sense of who I was and where I was going.

After thanking the Asian woman and assuring the guy in the aviator glasses that he’d changed my life I got my clipboard and put my sneakers back on and walked out into the Lompoc evening. But before leaving the porch I mounted a half-assed attempt to get a contribution to CalPirg from the guy. He was leaning in his doorway. He waved a hand around like he was shooing a bug.

“We’ve moved beyond all that,” he said.

I spent the rest of my shift wandering through Lompoc chanting. It really was kind of pleasantly trance-inducing. I didn’t knock on any more doors and when the day was done I was through with CalPirg. A few days later I got a job at a gas station, just like I had the previous summer after quitting Greenpeace.

A couple years earlier, during my senior year at boarding school, I’d told my mother I’d applied to Macalester College. The catalog made the place sound pretty good, a small liberal arts college full of intellectually adventurous young people expanding their minds in every direction. On some level I wanted to go there, but on another level I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything that would make the present turn into the future. I got what had to have been a tepid letter of recommendation from my JV basketball coach, filled out the application, wrote my essay, packed everything into an envelope, then just let it sit there for a few days and then a few weeks, and then I guess at some point long after the deadline for application had passed I threw the thing in the trash. But I told my mom I applied there and to a few other places that I can’t recall (Macalester was my “first choice” while the other places I didn’t apply to were my “fallbacks”). In fact the only place I actually applied to was Boston University. It doesn’t really make sense that I applied to any school, but maybe I’d made an exception for BU because it was a short walk from Fenway Park. This exception almost sabotaged my attempt to make time stand still, as BU accepted me. But soon after getting the acceptance letter I was expelled from the boarding school for smoking pot. That summer I was 17. I got my GED and worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 18. I worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 19.

I worked at a gas station. I wore a blue Chevron shirt. The Santa Barbara sky was the color of my shirt every single day. I quit with a few weeks left in the summer. No longer employed, I went jogging on a nearby beach barefoot every morning with the dog who’d met me at the beginning of the summer at the bus station, Luna. Every afternoon I hung out at a secluded beach, barefoot, meditating on rocks and reading books with the word Zen in the title. By the end of the summer I resembled the natives:

I was barefoot and tan.

(continued in Dock Ellis)


  1. 1.  i’ve been thinking about working at a gas station too.

  2. 2.  I know that Burgmeier is basically a MacGuffin, but I wanted to start off by talking about him anyways. I got him mixed up with that old QB from KU even though bb-ref just reminded me that Renko was a starter. It looks like Burgmeier had his best season at 36, so there is hope for us late bloomers. It looks like he was used as an OF and a pinch runner a couple times in his career, which is nice.

    I was never an idealist, so I never worked for any 501c3 group over the summer. But I did have door to door experience nevertheless. After my lost semester at UConn, I decided to not go back the next fall. But I didn’t tell anyone and left the house every day pretending to go to school while basically hanging out in the park, sitting in the car listening to the radio.

    Eventually my mom found out and I had to get a job. So I went back to the deli where I worked before high school. But I was enticed by the siren song of vacuum cleaner sales. So I worked for Kirby for a little while. They sold a high end vacuum cleaner that was better than an Electrolux and they were priced accordingly. This made them a tough sell as there were alot of defense plant cutbacks in my area during the winter of ’93.

    Every morning, I’d get in the van with three burnouts in their late 30’s (one of them lived in a motel, which blew my mind) and we’d try and mine some prosperous looking neighborhood by going door to door looking for someone that would let us demonstrate the power of a Kirby and maybe buy one. I think that I sold one unit in the two or three months that I was with them. The job cost me money. I eventually would up with a temp agency doing light industrial work.

    None of the folks I encountered during my travels offered me a magical mantra. But there was one creepy guy who interrupted my demonstration to tell me that he was a scanner and offered to teach me remote viewing. I packed up my stuff and got out of there posthaste.

    Bravo, Josh! You unlocked that memory for me.

  3. 3.  I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to witness literature being written the way I have here, Josh. It’s really wonderous.

  4. 4.  if i turned into half the people who i am “just like right now” i would be half-employed, an inch or two shorter (short people see themselves in me for some reason), and a married father of two. however, there is one person who told me that I was just like him while in school that i took as a compliment

    i, too, felt as if my childhood would never end and that the future was a mystical place that i would visit like neverneverland, disneyworld, or france. but to me this was a struggle. I would go to sleep at the age of 5 or 6 hoping to wake up 19 or 20 with freedom, a car, and the ability to work to buy the toys that my mom said we couldn’t afford. (transformers are basically badass toys and if i didn’t have to eat i would have a lot of them by now.) i never woke up 19 or 20 till years later and once i did, i still felt as if the future was something i would never encounter.

    now, removed from those hazy years of 19 and 20, I continue a journey to be like the one person who saw himself in me. i have a professor here at Bradley who said I reminded him of himself. since that day, i have come to think that it wouldn’t be so bad. for the first time, i actually know what i want the future to hold. now, i could argue that the future is still a place i will never encounter, and i might be right, but tomorrow (or more accurately less than 8 hours later today) I get to go to class and sit in a seat in an auditorium and take notes on japanese religion and later learn German. but the future is no longer something i want to wake up and suddenly be in, rather, i want to take my time getting there to be able to be like a person who saw themselves in me, or at least a little potential. (that last line didn’t work well, but as I said i have to go to class in less than 8 hours and you can’t be late on the first day of school so it will have to do.)

  5. 5.  My dad worked at a gas station when I was 5. I remember visiting him a few times at work. He got me some terrible vending machine junk food. I recall the gas smell, and the hot summer sun. My dad’s stupid uniform with his name on it: “Dennis”. The greatest loser-tag available to mankind. I remember walking home from the gas station, thinking dad had a pretty sad job. It was depressing to me, even at 5. My dad recently died, in the same state. Sad.

    As a kid, I always saw myself as being successful as an adult, in an office somewhere, doing something important, and people would respect me. I always had some kind of direction, and I was driven like a madman. I was dirt poor as a kid, and I was looked down upon by society as a street rat–pathetic, useless, poor white trash. I was determined never to be poor again.

    I pulled myself up and kicked the world square in the ass!!! (I recall reading Thomas Jefferson said once, something like, “occasionally, a poor white kid can be raked from the rubbish heap”, a real man of the people TJ was…. )

    I saw myself as that piece of shit TJ saw, and I was doing it all on my own. I wasn’t adrift, since I was 5. I published my first drawing at 18, and continued publishing many drawings. I bought my first apartment building at 19, and ended up with four in a short period of time. I was designing buildings for a big-time real estate developer. Got my real estate license. Did my undergraduate degree in 2.5 years, graduating summa cum laude. Got my law degree, graduating cum laude. Published two fucking books.

    Now. Today. For the first time since I was five. I am adrift. None of those accomplishments mean shit. Dad died with jack shit. He wasted his entire existence. Died a penniless lonely man in a dirty apartment. For years, he looked out that same fucking solitary window from the 14th floor of his hot-ass Atlanta cramped apartment with the rickety AC unit that barely worked. The soiled carpet. Drinking mouthwash (21.6% alcohol) day after fucking day by the gallons, to cushion his lonliness, regrets, and pains.

    But . . . the bastard did better than me. He had an unconditional loving wife. He did find it. They were absolutely devoted to one another. They loved each other, despite all their shortcomings and problems. It was real. He wrote unbelivable letters to her each day after she died. The fucker had it all. I haven’t come close.

    My bride. 15 years. My Ice Princess. Cold. So cold.

    As Michael Douglas said in the movie “War of the Roses”:

    “So far, it has all been a pretty normal
    divorce scenario. A few bruises, some broken dishes, a pissed-on fish.”

    It’s all pissed-on fish from here . . .

    Thank you, again, Josh, for what you are doing here.

  6. 6.  thank god I never had to sell door-to-door. nor work in gas station.

    but similarly, throughout my childhood and adolescence, i was entirely unable to visualize any future whatsoever. i refused to formally choose a major in college until about 3 weeks before graduation, tho’ I sort of off-handedly fulfilled the requirements for classics/art history. i wanted no part of post-college planning, no grad school, no on-campus interviews, no plan for anything.

    I had no conception of what kind of job, life, place to live, etc. would possibly follow. Ever. even now. I just did, and do, whatever showed up next, basically.

    it took me a hell of a long time to figure out what the diff tween living in the moment and not conceiving of a future in a good way and a bad way is.

    it was finally looking at causes and effects – i.e. right view, or karma “actions have results,” in all those buddhist books that helped. a little. what i do now has some effect. I guess.

    i still am not good at any kind of 5-year plan. in fact, i run screaming from them. Stalin ruined all that.

    btw: this is a great, great format.

  7. 7.  I think I learned enough about sales after falling for one of those win-a-bike magazine ad thingies as a kid that had me selling (actually, not selling) greeting cards door to door. Not my cup of meat.

    I’ve been having increasing thoughts of quitting my job and starting something new, but I really haven’t gotten much past the quitting part.

  8. 8.  My parents both worked at a gas station when I was about ages 7-10. I thought it was pretty cool because it was a block away from my school and the Little League field. I’d stop by for a few hours, listening to White Sox or Cub games on the radio while kids three years older than me tried to buy cigarettes from my mom or dad. Your mention of Chuck Rainey reminded me of sitting on the window sill next to the safe where they kept the expensive cigarettes, listening to Rainey nearly throw a no-hitter. Baseball-reference.com shows that as August 24, 1983, so I was eight. It was the first and last time I’d ever rooted for the Cubs, but Eddie Milner ruined it for everybody with two outs in the ninth.

  9. 9.  One summer during college, I worked for my uncle’s tire and auto repair place in Huntington. My family had grown up in that business, my grandfather having opened his own shop in Brooklyn many years before, and after he retired (no pun intended), my father and my mother’s two brothers kept it going, along with my brother.

    I suck at selling stuff. I mean, I couldn’t sell a beer to a thirsty frat boy at Shea Stadium. But my job that summer was to visit dozens of gas stations on Long Island and sell them on buying their tires from my uncle.

    Many days, I would just drive to the local record store and see what had just come in instead of making the actual stops I was supposed to. Other days, my uncle’s best repair guy, a crazy tattooed biker, would ask me to join him as he parked by the high school and whistled at the girls while we smoked a doobie. Fortunately, my uncle didn’t really check up on me too much.

    He especially wanted me to sell to Getty Eddy, one of the biggest stations around. Every week I’d go to Getty Eddy, and every week he’d turn me down.

    But one day I showed up and it was like he was waiting for me.

    “My supplier screwed up,” he told me. “If you can get me eight 185-R14s by five o’clock, you’re my new tire guy.”

    I raced back, thrilled that I might actually be selling something, even though it was really just fate. I ran over to my uncle all excited, and we quickly closed the deal.

    “How the hell did you get Getty Eddy anyway? I’ve been after him for years,” my uncle asked.

    It certainly wasn’t because I was a born salesman.

  10. 10.  I hear more stories about 5-year plans (or “things I want to do before I’m x years old”) gone awry than as being a useful tool for growth.

    If you could know today what will be important in five years, you have incredible self-knowledge. I did that once. While I was happy in my work, I saw that if I kept on doing that job, I would be unhappy later. Four years later, I realized that I had been right, but it didn’t actually help me much in getting to that next job.

    Another four or five years have passed, and I’m while I’m not exactly where I thought I wanted to be, I’m not exactly unhappy with where I am. So what good is the five year plan doing me? It doesn’t seem to be guiding me towards goal accomplishment, and instead, it seems to be a yardstick of how naive I was or how disappointed in myself I should be. WHO NEEDS THAT?

    Perhaps it is better just to be conceptually adrift, but making the most of that. Perhaps chanting and meditation is the right way to be.

    5 My heart’s breakin’ for Catfish these days. It is sounding really bad now!

  11. 11.  Thanks for all these stories, everyone. I am really appreciating all of them.

    Spurred by E.W. Keeler’s vacuum cleaner salesman tale in 2 , I wanted to recommend Raymond Carver’s story “Collectors” (it’s got a vacuum cleaner salesman in it). Actually, I strongly recommend any and all Raymond Carver you can get your hands on, especially in light of all these tales of dumb work and painful breakups. He’s been there.

    There’s an echo or an homage or an outright ripoff (depending on your view of such things) of a key line in Carver’s masterpiece “Cathedral” in the Burgmeier yarn above. Any Carver fans out there want to take a stab at what it is? (Hint: it’s a line of dialogue, both here and in “Cathedral.”) If you feel like reading “Cathedral,” the whole thing seems to be at the following link:


  12. 12.  …that’s like those occasional shpilkes-inducing Thanksgiving dinner “let’s go around the table and say what we are thankful for” sessions that always have me wanting to hide in the linen closet, and inevitably elicit some failed attempt at humorous levity on my part… which always falls flat and leads to an uncomfortable silence.

    For a brief spell one summer, I had a gig for the “All-American Office Supply Company,” commision only (no salary), where we sat sweltering in cubicles for 8 hours cold-calling offices around the country selling obsolete typewriter ribbons.

    The goal was to find an easily flustered office-temp subbing for a vacationing secretary, quick-talk them into believing that they were due for a new order, then pass the call to our quicker-talking supervisor who would slickly “close” the deal.

    I am still nauseous.

  13. 13.  Wow. Jesus Fucking Christ, this is good.

    I second the recommendation on Carver. Richard Yates is another one like that for me-he peels back your skull and looks into your brain.

    Catfish-Keep fouling pitches off, man. You’ll get one in the wheelhouse soon.

    As for me? My son (he’s 11) recently noted to me that he couldn’t decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. I said that I didn’t know what I wanted to be either. “But you’re already a pharmacist!” he complained.

    I usually tell people that I don’t know what I want to do, but I am pretty sure what I will be doing-the same shit I’m doing now.

  14. Josh, you are a great story-teller. This is great writing because everyone can see a part of themself in it. Also, this may be the best batch of comments I’ve seen on any entry.
    It is hard to imagine Burgmeier as a star at any level. He always looked like a regular guy who happened to be a major league pitcher.

  15. I’ve been thinking about quitting Greenpeace to go to work on the Exxon Valdez.

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