Doug Bird

June 19, 2008
One of Allen Ginsberg’s more well-known poems is “A Supermarket in California,” in which he imagines himself side by side with Walt Whitman. “Where does your beard point tonight?” he asks his imaginary companion at one point. I also once wrote a poem about Walt Whitman, during college, and it was published in the campus newspaper, The Basement Medicine. That was during the one year I served as a benchwarmer on the college’s pathetic basketball team. The center on the team, a Laimbeer-shaped freshman named Sean, complimented me on the poem. I don’t know if it was then that I noticed he had pretty putrid breath, or maybe it was another time. A couple years later, I was in the stands when he was on the brink of scoring his thousandth point. I had a camera with me and when he scored his milestone bucket on a short jumper in the lane I caught it on film. I kept meaning to give the photo to him, as it was the only visual record of his feat, but I never got around to it. I still have the picture somewhere. I suppose I could try to Google him, but he has a common last name and would probably be pretty difficult to find. I was always grateful to him for his compliment about my Whitman poem, and also grateful to him for a pickup game that pitted the two of us and three other guys on the basketball team against five guys from the college’s championship soccer team. We were more skillful at basketball, having devoted much of our lives to playing it, but we were losers and the soccer guys were winners. I once overheard the athletic director, who was also the soccer coach, say as much one day around the time of the pickup game.”The basketball guys just don’t know how to win,” he boomed. He always boomed whatever he had to say. By contrast our coach, a disheveled English teacher, most often muttered. (Sometimes he whined.)

During the pickup game the soccer guys looked like they might be able to prove the athletic director’s point. I started to get flashbacks to similar semi-official demoralizing basketball contests from my youth. Twice the guys from the grade younger than my grade challenged us to a game, once when I was in 8th grade and once when I was in 10th grade, and both times they beat us. During a battle for a rebound in the grim late stages of the second game, my last contest before I went away to boarding school, my hand inadvertently landed on the face of their best big man and out of frustration I yanked down, throwing him to the ground. The varsity coach was watching from the risen stage behind the basket. He started screaming at me. Luckily the guy I threw down, who could have ripped me limb from limb if he’d wanted to, was one of those genial, slow-to-anger behemoths, and he just stared at me, stunned, as he got to his feet.

“Get out of the game, Wilker!” the varsity coach yelled. “Go cool down!” I went into the locker room and I think I cried a little. It was shameful to get beat by younger guys, especially since the beating was implicitly sanctioned by the varsity coach, who looked down on us with disgust. It made me feel like I was nothing.

So here we went again a few years later, the soccer champions matching us basket for basket even though basketball was just something they did once in a while when they weren’t winning soccer tournaments, raising championship banners, and having sex with all the prettiest coeds. But eventually we just started feeding our bad-breathed center the ball. Sean was considerably bigger than any of their players, and he had a nice turnaround jumper, which he hit several times in a row to give us a victory that, though it didn’t wipe the smirks off the soccer guys’ faces, at least spared us total humiliation.

Anyway, I guess that’s where Doug Bird’s beard is pointing today. I didn’t think that’s where it would lead but I’m like a saxaphone that’s been run over by a pickup truck. Everything comes out crooked, wheezing. I thought I would be able to capture my many feelings about the expression on Doug Bird’s face. His mirthful, somewhat unhinged expression and his unruly hair exploding from every available pore makes him look like one of the backwoods guys who used to sail past our house once a year in pickup trucks to get to the nearby Tunbridge Fair. They had girlie shows there in one of the tents that wasn’t being used for livestock displays, and though I never went I imagine the audience was full of guys who looked like Doug Bird, drunk, cackling, wearing jeans and red checkered hunting jackets and John Deere hats, stomping their dirty shitkickers on the sawdust to the rhythm of the music accompanying the disrobing dancers, the air laced with the rural carnival aromas of smoke and cotton candy and manure. I guess some people know how to win; the rest of us follow a more crooked path, taking our pleasures where we can.

“Yeehaw!” Doug Bird shouts, his beard pointed up at the show.


  1. 1.  Do you still write poetry? Is there somewhere I can read it. I’m really inspired by your writing. Off the cuff, intelligent, and self effacing. I’d be interested in reading just about anything you put out there.

  2. 2.  1 : Thanks for asking. I wrote a lot of poetry in college and kept it up for a while afterwards (a couple poems got published a long time ago in The Green Mountains Review), but gradually I found myself drifting away from it. I think it’s because A) It’s too hard! and B) I read prose all the time, poetry just once in a while. What goes in is what comes out, I guess. I always mean to reapply myself to that difficult art, but I’m pretty lazy.

  3. 3.  I’m bored at work, so I tried Googling Sean without a last name. I didn’t have any luck, but, as I’m sure you already know, the guy you subbed for in the Sven Nater entry has made a career out of college basketball. His family also apparently has a Christian Basketball Entertainment Show with a Motivational Message.

  4. 4.  3 : Yeah, before I wrote the Nater piece I already knew that my old teammate Luneau had become an assistant coach for the Syracuse women’s team, but some idle Googling turned up that unusual side project you mention (http://www.basketballfamily.com/). Another guy from that team, actually the guy I became closest to, went on to lead a Vermont high school to a state championship and now runs a basketball school where he instructs all levels of players, including some NBA guys.

  5. 5.  I expect the next entry to be on Danny Walton or perhaps another Danny. Bird was from Corona, CA. According to Whiskeypedia, Corona used to be a largely agricultural community, dominated by citrus orchards, ranches, and dairy farms. So, yeah, I can see him hanging out at the fair, waiting for the tractor pull or maybe the horse races. I don’t think Corona is all that far from Pomona; esp in a poetic sense.

  6. 6.  Bird looks like an extra from a Cheech & Chong movie.

  7. 7.  6 : Ha!

    Here’s a 2003 article about Bird (some of my friends who have worked on young adult books might recognize name of the author, Norman Macht) in which Bird reflects on his career, making sure to express his gratitude for an anonymous antiwar activist:

    “There were two weeks to go in the semester,” Bird recalled, “and I just packed up my car and went home. Two weeks later I got a notice to report for a physical and immediate induction into the Army. Then somebody blew up the draft board in South Pasadena. All the paperwork went up in smoke. By the time they got everything straightened out, they had switched over to a lottery system where they drew lots with birthdates on them. My number was up in the 280s, and they never called me.

    “If I knew who blew up the draft board, I’d thank him, cause otherwise I’d have been gone. End of baseball career.”

  8. 8.  7
    Who knows how many lives were changed by that one act.

  9. 9.  Nater dated my sister back in the day, big UCLA stud. What in the heck was she thinking about?
    Nater fancied himself as a golfer and he would use my Mom’s old golf clubs to play with. Then he broke one and didn’t bother to replace it. I thought that was so lame, this seven footer using clubs made for a woman 5’4″. After that, every time I saw him I began continually asking him in the form of a greeting, “How’s the weather up there?”. Oh, Nater didn’t care for that at all.
    So Mr. Bird, how are your Weathermen doing today? You owe them, don’t you think? Peace.

  10. 10.  9 : This might sound sarcastic but it isn’t: I feel richer knowing that Swen Nater used and broke his girlfriend’s mother’s golf clubs.

  11. 11.  Doug Bird’s smiling face only brings back the nightmare of the 1978 ALCS and the glowering visage of Munson and a towering 8th inning shot that staked the Yankees to a 2-1 series lead. I knew then with a fatal intinct that should have been foreign to an 11 year old that the Royals would lose their 3rd ALCS in a row against those damn Yankees. Which they would losing 2-1 in a game where the Yankees only managed 4 hits to the Royals 7 proving the quality over quantity theory.

  12. 12.  11 : I was wondering when someone was going to bring up Doug Bird’s most infamous mound moment. It’s surely not as awful in Royals fans’ memories as the Littell-Chambliss homer in ’76, but it’s gotta be in the top ten (or is it the bottom ten?).

  13. 13.  The Littel incident is by far the worst memory ever. My 9 year old psyche was forever damaged from that one pitch. Heck, it was only in the last few years that I stopped hating Mark Littel. It’s hard to hold on to such animosity when the dude has invented something like the Nutty Buddy jock strap.

  14. ah … such a rich history of
    the so-called “poetry of the game,”

    spanning the ages and encompassing such classic works as
    “Casey at the Bat” and “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon (aka/ Tinker to Evers to Chance,” lyrical excursions into the popular song form,
    like “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie Mickey and the Duke),” and “Van Lingle Mungo,”
    groundbreaking stanzas of free association,
    like “The Collected Works of Phil Rizzuto,”
    or even George Will’s florid babblings about
    “pastoral simplicity,” and “green cathedrals…”

    The Sport and the Form blend together naturally,
    often seamlessly,
    able to be appreciated both seperately and together,
    two components of expressionistic image,
    and infinite variety,
    to the delight of the fan…

    “…dat shows, right there, how THROWED she is,
    thermistat couldn’t tell how COLD she is,
    then she did the splits
    like an olympicists
    started laughin at my date, she a bowler bitch,
    don’t do it like that, girl
    gonna make her start shootin off her gat, girl
    cause when she mad she don’t know how to act, girl,
    but you my boy so I give you dab girl,
    Do yo THang Just…
    Bend ya Kneez!
    touch ya toes
    and whoever don’t like it
    tell em fuck you ho’s!
    now shake ya hips
    give it all ya can
    tell them hata broads
    ‘Bitch I’ll take ya man!!’ ”

    – inspired verse
    courtesy of my “dawg,” aka.

    Lastings D. Milledge
    (poet laureate of Allegheny county)

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