Jason VaritekAugust 15, 2008
Here is a fighter. The captain of my team. Lately he’s been going through some tough times on and off the field. I imagine he’s not crumpling in the face of his challenges but trying to battle through them.
But me? I’m not a fighter. Here’s my annotated lifetime record of confrontational fiascoes:
1972: A fellow four-year-old shot me with a suction cup dart gun. I wanted to kill him. My mom intervened. I have never gotten over this injustice.
1977: A fellow nine-year-old from my rural town came over to play one day. He was the coolest kid in my class, a rider of minibikes and snow machines, a beebee gun murderer of birds. At my nonviolent back-to-the-land house, boredom quickly set in for him. To break it up he started calling me dufus.
“Don’t call me that,” I said.
So he said it again and again. I started chasing him around the yard, sobbing with anger. He was a much tougher kid than I was and could have beaten me to a pulp if he’d wanted to, but he preferred to just keep calling me dufus and easily eluding me. (It’s hard to run fast when you’re weeping and screaming.) He was laughing so hard that soon enough he, too, was crying. It must have looked curious, two lunatics playing tag. I don’t remember how it ended. I know it didn’t end satisfactorily. In a way it never ended.
1978: My first and only actual fight, sort of. I was with some other ten-year-olds out beyond the chain link center field fence during the town’s July 4th Little League All-Star Game. One of them, Jimmy, was hanging on the fence and sort of blocking my view. Jimmy had been my first friend in Vermont when we’d moved there four years earlier, but after that first year we moved one town over and I only ever saw him when my Little League team played his. The most memorable moment of our brief friendship had been when he and I decided to fend off the encroaching boredom of a rural summer day by trying to play tennis with two baseball bats and a rock. I think this was my bright idea. I hit the rock to him and he swung and missed. Then he hit the rock to me and I swung and missed. I began to think it was a stupid idea and was on the brink of giving up on it when I gave it one last distracted try, hitting the rock to him. He swung and connected and smacked the rock into my mouth. Blood gushed out, tears, screams. Anyway, four years later Jimmy had become a big, thick-armed kid blocking my view of the game. So I asked him if he could move. He turned and glared at me. Maybe he was mad that I wasn’t really friends with him anymore, I don’t know.
“Why don’t you make me,” he said.
I’m sure if it was just the two of us there I would have shrunk from his challenge. Unfortunately, there were a bunch of other kids around. So I got up, a stupid grin frozen on my face. I am going to be in a fistfight. I don’t know why I had a long sleeve T-shirt on in the middle of summer, but I distinctly remember rolling up the sleeves of it, and remember even more distinctly that I was doing it ironically. I am rolling up my sleeves for a fight, just like in the movies. Ten years old and already crippled by unshakeable self-awareness. We squared off, I guess, and he threw two roundhouse rights. I ducked both of them and then I lunged at him and tried to grab him. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing. I think I wanted to grab his arms because they were the things that kept coming at my skull. My hygiene, it should be pointed out, was somewhat lackluster. I was something of a hippie kid. More to the point, my fingernails during my first and only sort-of fight were longer than they should have been. Anyway what happened was that I ended up scratching him. This brought the fight to a screeching halt.
“You scratched me like a girl,” Jimmy declared, his face twisting sour on the last word. Disgusted, he now wanted no part of me. I was glad to no longer be in danger of being punched in the face, but it was brief, superficial relief, and the monstrous humiliation of a coward revealed swelled up in its wake. What worse term could a boy be called in front of a pack of other boys on a sunny July day?
1979: I started annoying my older brother while the two of us were playing an old boardgame called Dogfight. I don’t remember what I was doing, only that he told me to stop doing it and I kept doing it. Finally he went to punch me in the shoulder but missed and hit me in the face, his knuckles scraping off some of the thin skin on the side of my forehead. I started bleeding a little and went crying and screaming to my mommy.
1995 (approximately): I’m skipping some shouting matches during basketball games throughout my teen and college years and cutting to a night at my 1990s hangout, The International. I don’t know how it started, just that the narrow bar was crowded and my brother took extreme umbrage at what he perceived as the arrogant attitude of some random skinny hipster and his crowd of random skinny hipster friends, which unlike our own lonely gathering of mutterers included some girls. What I discovered is that while I generally go to great lengths to avoid confrontations I apparently won’t hesitate to jump into the middle of things to defend my brother. To use the old phrase, I see red. There was no ironic internal monologue reciting things like “I am rolling up the sleeves of my shirt now.” Shit started happening and I was in the middle of it. I am making this sound more like a brawl than what it actually was—a crowded harmless shoving match centering around my brother attempting to strangle an arrogantly grinning skinny hipster (who might as well have been mouthing the word dufus again and again)—but I think it still deserves to be noted because it was the only time in my life that I can remember jumping into action without first thinking about it. The whole thing was defused by Rose, heroic bartender of the International, who despite her slender, diminutive frame broke up the scrum with a few expert commands. Words continued to be exchanged as the Wilker Brothers/skinny hipsters game of drunken Twister untangled. I happened to be wearing the sweatshirt of an establishment in Staten Island that we’d visited not long before. One of the hipster women referred to it with scorn during the still-heated exchange of unpleasantries.
“Calm down, Hooters,” she said.
1997 (approximately): I went with a friend to the International, but because of electrical difficulties the bar was shut down. As my friend wrote a note to stick in the locked gate of the bar for another friend we’d planned to meet there, I wandered over to the big bag of stale baguettes that always seemed to materialize outside the bar at night. Many was the time that I’d drunkenly stumbled out of the bar to grab a stale bat of bread and gnaw on it for a while. But since I hadn’t gotten drunk yet I wasn’t interested in eating the discarded bread. Still, I grabbed a baguette and made like I was stalking over to my friend to cartoonishly bash him in the head. I abandoned the bit before he turned to see and put the bread back in the bag. Or maybe I was still holding the bread. I don’t remember. Anyway, some guy punched me in the face. Suddenly he was there in front of me and wham. There was another guy with him. The puncher shouted something at my friend, then he and his companion walked north on First Avenue, moving fast. Later my friend said that what he’d heard was “I’ve got a gun.”
I stood there holding my glasses, which I’d caught in my hands as they’d fled, crippled, from my face. I’d staggered back a step with the punch. I stood there for quite a while, blinking.
“What just happened?” my friend said.
2005: I haven’t had any altercations since getting punched in the face outside the International. But I did see red once. A year or so after moving here to Chicago I was in a bar, watching a Red Sox game. For some reason they started replaying some moments from late in Game 5 of the previous year’s American League Championship series. In that game, Tim Wakefield came on in relief late, forcing Jason Varitek into the unusual position of trying to catch the knuckleball. In the midst of such an important game—a loss would have eliminated the Red Sox—Boston could not afford to take their hot-hitting team leader out for Wakefield’s usual personal catcher, Doug Mirabelli. Unfortunately for Varitek, Wakefield’s knuckler was even more lively than usual that night. No one could touch it: not the Yankee batters, not Varitek. The potential pennant-winning run advanced to first on a third-strike passed ball, then by the time two outs had been recorded had advanced all the way to third on two more passed balls. After the third of these passed balls, a brief, unsung moment occurred that ranks for me as one of my favorite of the 2004 playoffs. As the shellshocked catcher was walking back to his position Wakefield caught his eye and looked at him calmly and steadily while making a gentle down-patting motion with his arms.
“Don’t worry, old pal,” Wake seemed to be saying. “We’ve got this.”
I didn’t realize how protective I was of that moment until, a year later, with replays of the passed balls showing on the screen, a guy near me at the bar started mocking Varitek’s abilities.
“Ha! Some captain! He can’t even catch the ball!” the guy said.
He might as well have insulted my brother. Without thinking about what I was doing I started yelling at him. Fortunately for the health of my face and glasses he was a happy-go-lucky sort who had only been trying to get a rise out of a Red Sox fan he was sitting with, so no blows or scratches or sobbing ensued.
But after the brief altercation I sat there trembling. It was the first time I realized how much my captain meant to me. Yesterday was the second time. I’ve long-since been dispossessed of my childhood idea that baseball players exist in some realm above earthly suffering, so it shocked me to feel the earth twitching a little below my feet when I learned that Jason Varitek had filed for divorce. Later that day, as his teammates pounded the ball all over the yard, Varitek continued a long, awful slump, and I realized that the shock of the news of his divorce came from me putting him up on a pedestal as someone who, unlike me, has it all figured out. I guess no one has it all figured out. Sooner or later, the pitches will start coming too fast and breaking too hard. Maybe the best we can do is go down swinging.