Bill Russell

January 20, 2009
How tough are you? Me, I’m not so tough.

The tough way: Get on the field. Assume the proper crapping-in-the-woods crouch. Grimace a little if you want to, like Dirty Harry. Say in your mind: Hit it to me. If the ball takes a bad hop and thumps your chest or clips your jaw or drills you in the stones, pick it up and make the play. Spit and punch your glove. Extra points for spitting a tooth. Later, at night, sleep deeply.

My way: Imagine, before even taking the field, all the bad hops a ball could make. Take the field tentatively. Pray the ball is hit to someone else. Later, at night, stare at the ceiling, wide awake and cringing with regret.

Of course I am speaking metaphorically, since I haven’t been called on to field an actual grounder for decades. What have I been doing instead? Nothing much. Some writing. That’s the supposed focus of each day and has been for a long time, but in fact most days I fail to take the correct stance, the stance that will put me in the path of whatever is hit my way, one way or another, even if it causes me pain. Instead I move out of the path of the ball and stab at it. If it gets by me, well, whatever, there’s always tomorrow.


  1. 1.  First?

    I haven’t been writing much lately myself. I’ve been reading up on a topic, and reading some more, and reading some more. Eventually, I need to put pen to paper, as it were.

  2. 2.  I was an OF in Little League and a pretty good fielder, but I remember one time when I was 11 that in practice my father (who was a coach) hit a line drive to me in LF. I thought I had it all lined up, but it sailed over my glove and nailed me right in the mouth. I just missed my nose, which would have surely flattened it, and my mouth was closed, so my teeth were spared. For some reason I didn’t react at all, but just picked up the ball and threw it back in. I have always despised pity, so that may have been the reason. I guess I was far enough out that nobody was able to tell exactly what happened. Interestingly, years later my father was the manager of my youngest brother’s team when he was 11(he is 7 years younger than me) and during warm ups for the first game of the season he hit a line drive to my cousin in LF and it nailed him right in the nose and broke it. There must be something about my father’s line drives that made them hard to pick up.

  3. 3.  C’mon Wilker, get in the game buddy and give it your all!! Stop half assing it! Let’s go, there’s ten other guys who would kill for your position. That was my stab at a coach-like inspirational talk. I always remember a Hemingway quote where he says it was lucky to get just two sentences that were any good in one day.

  4. 4.  2 : “I have always despised pity.”

    I’m sort of drawn to pity, at least in the realm of fantasy. I guess if I was experiencing it a lot in real life it’d get old, but like George Costanza I sometimes like to imagine floating in a great warm pool of pity.

  5. 5.  I don’t know when it happened, but I lost a bit of my competitive edge in my twenties. Perhaps it was when I decided that I needed to be less rough and a bit nicer. I use to be uber-competitive. I remember walking out to the pool deck the day after the water polo season ended and asked when we started off season training (this was after winning a regional title at the end of the season). My coach told me to take some time off and chase some girls. So I started my own training regime instead.

    I was the type that took the hardest way possible, always. I expected perfection from myself and held my teammates to the same standard, and I was usually disappointed if we only met expectations. Then I left the game, and metaphorically, I’m not sure I ever got back in the game.

    It’s a post like this that prods my urge to start blogging again, or doing something. Two sentences, if nothing else.

  6. 6.  My problem has always been I was not competitive enough. I realized I had to stop playing in softball leagues because I’d always lose interest about 1/3 of the way into the season and stop going to certain games if something else came up. It always pissed off the other team members.

  7. 7.  He dose look like he wants to poop doesn’t he…

  8. 8.  You catch more than you miss, Josh.

  9. 9.  Taking them off the chest – all the time.
    Pick it up – throw them out.

  10. 10.  “there’s always tomorrow.”

    except, there isn’t: case in point – todd drew of bronx banter. i’m crushed by his early exit.

    but i’m sure glad you’re still around, josh wilker – it’s been thoroughly enjoyable to come back to the toaster just to read your amazing writing (and check in at the griddle too!)!!!

    let’s hope for a full lifetime of tomorrow’s, no rainchecks!!! stay warm, josh!

  11. 11.  I’m so competitive, I’d bet someone at coin flipping. And I wouldn’t stop playing until I won or the other person quit. At the same time, I’m a huge wuss and I’m afraid of the ball, so I hope we’re not playing something where I can get hurt.

    But even with my competitiveness, I think I’d rather lose and have a fun time than win. As long as the other guy loses, too.

    Why the fuck is Bill Russell not even within the confines of a ballpark? Is that a Chevy back there? Maybe Bill could walk down that sidewalk and find out for us. It’s like his parents just dropped him off at summer camp.

  12. 12.  11 yeah, i think he’s on a tee-league field – i wouldn’t be afraid of the ball at that yard either! and what’s that crazy rock-like thing on its side off to the back right?!?!

  13. 13.  That’s the edge of the inflatable ball pit. Or the counselors’ tent.

  14. 14.  or some kind of slayground slide!

  15. 15.  10 : Yes, that was really sad to hear about Todd Drew. I liked his writing a lot. I think my attempt at self-lacerating irony with the consciously flimsy “there’s always tomorrow” line was informed by news of his death, among a couple other things.

    1114 : Ha! I think the car in the background is only the second appearance of a car with a Cardboard God, the first showing up behind the perturbed Warren Brusstar (Phillies).

  16. 16.  The background of this card is none other than recently vacated Dodgertown in Vero Beach. My wife sent me there and it was the best week of my life.

    When I got home I immediately went to my baseball card pile and looked for any traces of Dodgertown in background of every Dodger card of my childhood.

    Prior to going to Vero I hadn’t played baseball in 16 years, since I have returned I joined a league and have not stopped.

    I cannot tell you how fun it is to be playing ball again at 41. I had no idea how much I missed it, it is the return of a joy that I never thought I would experience again.

    I think the finality of age, thinking I would never play again, combined with time and mortage and marriage and life and everything else grown up in the world made the memory of the joy fade away.

    I wonder if any other of the joys of childhood, long ceased, would give me similar pleasure if I started them again…I cant imagine hide and seek being all that much fun once the novelty wore off.

    But baseball gets better every Sunday I play, every Sunday my body remembers with a touch more clarity what it used to do on every summers day.

    There is also a comfort in age, I play as hard as I can, but take comfort in that I will never be as good I as remember. Such a relief in simply playing and not worrying about what I am becoming.

    Ah, Baseball. The truest analogy that comes to mind about finding baseball again is that it must have been like the advent of Viagra was for some other fellows…a pleasure so long lost so deliciously and unexpectedly returned

  17. 17.  I had actually checked some other ’77 Dodgers cards last night–saw Don Sutton with a similar background but at least you could see a scoreboard and a fence in his.

  18. 18.  16 I’ve completely replaced baseball with softball. I last played hardball in 8th grade, and not very much then. I did have one pick-up outing when I was about 20, but by then, I had played some softball with my fraternity team.

    Since then, I joined a softball team that I’ve played with for over 10 years, and I might need to give that team up this year. I’m wistful about it. I’m often the most gifted at capturing grounders, but not the best arm, so I have played shortstop only when a better option isn’t around. I enjoy it, but give myself a hard time when I make mistakes — an errant throw, usually.

    Just the same, when I step out there, get into a crouch, and await the batter’s swing, I am more often hoping that I get a solid grounder that I can field flawlessly, or a pop-up that makes me range back or out towards center and catch on the run. I guess I do want the ball, but I want it to be playable!

  19. 19.  I was a disaster of a Little Leaguer, culminating in taking a routine fly ball on my eye in an incident eerily similar to what Joe describes in 2 . In looking back, I think my problem was just that I wanted it too bad. Even at a young age, I was, like Josh, all too aware of everything that might go wrong.

    As an adult softball player, I’ve had some measure of revenge, rising to a level best described as adequate. Still, I like playing pitcher because fielding the grounders at that range is all reaction. There’s not enough time to think about screwing up.

  20. 20.  I’m reading Jim Norton’s new book, I HATE YOUR GUTS, and one of the early chapters is about his disastrous Little League career, saying he played more like Ruth Gordon than Babe Ruth. About his one attempt at pitching he writes, “Taking my warm-up pitches before the game, I was having more trouble finding the plate than Karen Carpenter.”

    I have this memory as a kid of Bill Russell making a two-out error against the Mets in the ninth innning of an 8-0 game, and the Mets going on to win 9-8. I have no proof that it ever happened, but I’ve never left a game early since, no matter what the score.

  21. 21.  20 :


  22. 22.  20 : Clarification: the link in 21 doesn’t exactly match your description, but Russel did make an error in the ninth that resulted in a 9-8 Mets win.

  23. 23.  I was so bad in little league. I so desperately wanted to be just like Jody Reed, The Rocket and Mike Boddicker(before he left for greenbacks in KC), but I was terrible. Fear of the ball like crazy. However, I kept saying ‘maybe tomorrow, I’ll ask to play the infield. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask to pitch’…whatever it was that gave me the sack to ask, I finally achieved both. I was Jody Reed for a couple innings. Then, I was The Rocket for 6 batters. If I hadn’t hit 5 straight batters, maybe I would’ve been in there longer. But, I was there, I did it.

    Seems my entire life’s great moments are the boiling points where I finally become Jody Reed and The Rocket. For months and years, I boil, waiting to finally take the step.

    Afterwards, I’m always thinking ‘What the fuck were you waiting for?’ I try so freakin’ hard to live today and not tomorrow, but it isn’t always easy.

  24. 24.  22 Woo-hoo! That’s the game, and although my memory wasn’t exact, I can finally rest easy. What a relief (no pun intended).

  25. 25.  As long as we’re bringing up past days of glory–here’s video of me getting the final out of the 3rd place game at age 10 in Little League. I had no arm, but I got people out by pitching sidearm.

    It’s so funny how my Yankee fan friend was on the team with all the best players that won every year, while ours was a rag-tag bunch. (And yes, they even wore pinstripes.) This third place finish was one of the best any of my organized teams ever did, lifetime.

  26. 26.  Sorry–video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ytxxUrZDDk

  27. 27.  23 Then, I was The Rocket for 6 batters. If I hadn’t hit 5 straight batters, maybe I would’ve been in there longer.

    I think you were more Dock Ellis there!

  28. I always thought Bill Russell looked like a muppet.

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