Joe RudiSeptember 13, 2012
(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
My mom emailed me with the news that my dad’s favorite cat had gone deaf and blind. I was in my cubicle at work when I read the email. I took my cell phone down to the lower level of my office building, where sloping windows two stories high look out onto an expansive parking lot.
“He’s on his walk,” my mom said. “You should try back again later.”
I looked out beyond the parking lot to the raised highway in the distance endlessly ushering heavy traffic north and south.
“I’ll try. I can’t see him wanting to talk a whole lot,” I said.
“You’d be surprised. He went on and on at the vet. He’s changed.”
My mother and I chatted for a few more minutes.
“When you get a pet, you’re in for the long haul,” she said. “I’m 71 and I finally understand that, the long haul.” I forget how she phrased the next part exactly. Something about people, how you throw in with people, you make decisions in the moment binding you to another, not knowing or even really considering the future, the long haul.
One day in 1962, when Joe Rudi was sixteen, the greatest baseball players in the world came to his hometown of Modesto, California. Game 6 of the World Series was being delayed several days due to historically relentless rain. During the long delay, the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants traveled south from San Francisco to work out in Modesto, where it was drier. Joe Rudi watched from beyond the outfield fence, where he was able to collect several home run balls launched by the major leaguers. By the end of the day, the sixteen-year-old had an armful of these World Series souvenirs.
In 1962 my mother had just moved to New York City, or perhaps was on the brink of moving to New York City. She was 21, and the world was wide open, unsolved. My dad was a stranger to her, one of millions in the city. He was older, had served in the Navy during World War II, had worked all through the 1950s. The two would meet at a lecture on psychology and art at Cooper Union. My future father went up to my future mother and asked her out for coffee. When I’ve imagined the scene, I’ve always superimposed my own insecurities and awkwardness onto my father, but he was probably pretty impressive in his own way. Not a bad-looking fellow. A gentle guy. An intellectual. He asked a question that was easy enough to say yes to. He didn’t ask her whether in fifty years, when he was 87, she would drive him to the vet because the cat he took in his lap every day to gently brush and brush had started walking into walls.
Joe Rudi’s memory of the day in 1962 when the World Series came to Modesto surfaced during a weather-related pause in the 1972 World Series. The A’s had won the first two games of the series, the second of these wins delivered in large part by Rudi, who supplied the winning margin with a home run and then preserved the lead with a leaping, fence-crashing ninth-inning grab. Looking for a story to fill space created by the rainout, reporters had gravitated to the most recent game’s hero, and Rudi had told them about 1962.
“One thing I remember most,” he said, “is that we all waited outside the park for autographs.” Joe Rudi was now himself a World Series hero, but in his recollection he became again the anonymous sixteen-year-old clutching an armful of major league home run balls to his chest.
“The players all walked straight to the bus,” he said.
One wall of my cubicle is a whiteboard filled with project schedules scrawled in black marker. When the schedules change I erase dates and replace them with other dates. Recently, during a lull, I used a blue marker to write “card of the day” down near the bottom of the board. Since then I try to remember every day to put a randomly selected baseball card on a shelf just below the “card of the day” title. Joe Rudi was the featured card the day I tried to call my father about his ailing cat. After returning from my first attempt, I did some work, occasionally glimpsing Joe Rudi off to my left, a pale, mustachioed ghost from my childhood, or in this specific case from the later fringes of childhood. The card was from 1981, when I was thirteen and losing interest in cards. I was considering the card when I sensed someone at the entry to my cube.
“Who you got today?” a coworker asked.
I swiveled around from my computer-facing position. A guy who sits a couple of cubes over from me in the accounts department was standing there. Every once in a while he ambles by and remarks on my card of the day. We’ve never had a conversation outside of these exchanges.
I reclined a little in my chair, motioned toward Joe Rudi. My coworker picked up the card.
“Hmm, he ended up with the Angels, huh?” the coworker said. He was looking at the front of the card. I knew what was about to happen. He was going to turn the card over to look at the stats, and in doing so he was going to be momentarily, infinitesimally jarred.
The game-winning catch in the 1972 World Series blessed Joe Rudi’s career. All his virtues, whether real or perhaps at times exaggerated, were encapsulated in it: he was clutch, a winner, a sublime fielder, someone who could do everything well and who would do whatever it took to beat you. Had he not made such a spectacular grab—had Denis Menke, who hit the drive, instead lofted an easy fly to Rudi—a fairly similar popular conception of Joe Rudi would probably have been generated anyway, but this collective portrait wouldn’t have had such an arresting and emblematic gathering point. Roger Angell best fixed the moment in time by comparing the leaping catch against the wall to the image of a pinned butterfly. There was something ineffable about Joe Rudi, something to be held gently, carefully.
In 1981 Fleer and Donruss disrupted the Topps monopoly on baseball cards. I didn’t get any Donruss cards but bought some Fleer. The photos on the new cards were often drab, dim, even slightly unfocused. But that wasn’t the problem with them. The problem was that the statistics on the back were upside down. Everyone who knew and loved baseball cards would first look at the front of the card, then would flip the card over in a certain way to look at the statistics on the back of the card. Doing this with a 1981 Fleer would result in the statistics being upside down. It’s a small thing, but it’s jarring. You hold a card with care, and this is what happens. The world you want to love will push you away.
My parents live far away from me. My infant son can’t ride in the car, not even a few blocks to Target. He instantly starts wailing to the point of gagging suffocation. For now, until he can ride in a car, there is a physical separation between the family I am raising and the family I grew up in. This separation is painful to me, the one part of my life that I would change if I could. I wish we all lived in the same village or something, but such is modern life. Everyone scatters.
I went back down to the lower level and stared out at the parking lot and the highway and dialed my phone again. My dad was there. He told me about the cat’s condition, described the sad daily scene of watching her inch across the room to get to her food, her litter.
All my baseball cards came to me when my father was separated from my mother. We lived in Vermont and he lived in New York City. He was a guy who visited. In the summer my brother and I visited him. He lived without a pet in a small studio apartment. During his visits to us he always spent time with our cats. He loved them. I wondered why he didn’t get a cat of his own. He seemed to be living like someone prepared to leave everything behind at a moment’s notice, like he was waiting for a call.
Eventually, that call came. He and my mom got back together in the mid-1990s, when the bleary cat that now teeters into walls was my mom’s rambunctious kitten.
The marriage between my mother and father has been unusual but not without love. Recently, my mom got quite sick. I spoke on the phone with my dad about it after she’d started to get better.
“She’s everything to me,” he said.
My mom was right about him changing. He used to be nice and silent about feelings, like me, but nowadays he says things like this every once in a while. It’s terrifying. When telling me about his cat, he somehow began talking about his own death, which, as he helpfully pointed out, was not too far off.
“I’m not unhappy about it,” he said. “I just hope for happiness for you and your family and your brother and his family. I just want you to be happy.”
I went back to my cube and ran out the clock on my day. I didn’t want to think about a blind cat or an 87-year-old father or distance or disappointment or the world pushing you away. I searched the net for traces of Joe Rudi. That’s when I found the story of him as a sixteen-year-old in 1962, running after and gathering home run balls struck by gods. I could see him in my mind, in that moment before he experienced the disappointment of the major leaguers brushing past him to get to their bus. He waited, happy, all still to come. He cradled the baseballs, each one blessed.
I don’t hold onto the gifts of my life with great enough care.