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Gary Lavelle

July 22, 2019

Gary Lavelle

Gary Lavelle’s best moment occurred in New York City less than a week after the 1977 blackout that left that city without power for 25 hours. In the standard public conception, that blackout featured looting and arson, if not an overall sense of society on the brink of collapse, but I didn’t experience any of that. I was telling my sons about it a few days ago. I was driving them to a place in Chicago that sold New York style pizza slices that they liked.

“All the lights went out everywhere.”

“Didn’t you bump into things?” my older son asked.

“Maybe we had some candles,” I said. I actually couldn’t remember what we did inside my father’s studio apartment for light, but as soon as I proposed this theory I saw my father’s desk, stacks of papers and books and classical music cassettes on it, and now, in my mind, there was a candle at the edge of it, casting a flickering light through the tiny apartment as the sounds of a city in darkness floated up to us from the streets below.

***

My desk has a stack of books and a stack of baseball cards. Gary Lavelle has been at the top of the stack for a while. I hoped and still hope that at some point I will be able to move seamlessly from the writing of one book to the next, but my writing life has and probably always will be defined by long, solitary stretches that go on for years and years. Maybe in those silences something is gathering, maybe it isn’t. Maybe I have something to say about Gary Lavelle, maybe I don’t. The days go by, the nights, the weeks. His tinted glasses, his sideburns, his shadow on the artificial turf. I come to the desk again and again. My father did the same, although not with baseball cards but with thick books on sociology. He leaned on his elbows every night and read. All those words that went into his brain—where are they?

***

One of the books stacked on my table is a 1961 autobiography of Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks. I’m probably reading it to try to stay connected to my father. When he was a boy in the 1930s, growing up poor and Jewish in New York, as the Marx Brothers had a generation before him, he had watched all their movies in the theater when they’d first come out. I imagine him sitting there in the darkness, laughing, happy.

I told my boys a story from the book, about how Harpo had been continually thrown out his first-story first grade classroom window by two Irish classmates. (One day he got tossed out and decided to never come back, ending his formal education.) My boys were fascinated by that story and wanted to know more, so I showed them some Marx Brothers clips. The clips were, of course, created close to a century ago, back when my own father was the age of my sons. I laughed. My boys laughed. I imagined my father with us, laughing too.

***

Gary Lavelle had made the 1977 all-star team on the strength of a sub-2.00 ERA, and the National League manager, Sparky Anderson, whose “Captain Hook” nickname attested to his status as an early advocate of bullpen specialists, tabbed him as the first pitcher in from the bullpen after starter Don Sutton handled the first three innings. Sutton had been excellent, blanking the American League on one hit and one walk, but Lavelle was just as good, if not better, adding two more zeros to the scoreboard on one hit and no walks. He struck out two Hall of Famers, Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Jackson, and bested two other Hall of Famers, George Brett and Carlton Fisk, while racking up his swift six outs. It’s not a performance you ever hear about when legendary all-star game feats come up, but in those few minutes that Lavelle was on the mound at Yankee stadium under the blazing electric lights, he mowed down some of the best baseball players who ever walked the earth.

***

“What about in the streets?” my older son asked me.

“I guess it wasn’t totally dark. There were cars with headlights. People had flashlights.”

I actually didn’t remember walking with my brother and father through the streets with a flashlight, but I remember walking up six flights of stairs in a pitch black stairwell to my father’s apartment, and I remember the three of us holding hands as we did so. I’m not sure if this—or anything—is literally accurate, but it’s emotionally accurate. What I remember about the blackout is being brought closer to my older brother, who was often trying to get some separation from me, and closer to my father, who had stopped living with us a few years earlier. So I always imagine us holding hands as we rose through the darkness. Forgive me if I told this story before. It’s one of the best moments of my life, even if it may not be altogether true.

4 comments

  1. Thank you, Josh, for this fine piece of writing. It is honest and true, even if you are not sure the actual facts of what happened are true. I really appreciate the candor of your writing about your family experiences.
    Additionally, it was nice to read about Gary Lavelle, an underappreciated reliever from the 1970s. I remember a piece in “Baseball Digest” about him (or was it Greg Minton? I will need to investigate this.). Along with Minton, they made a solid Giants bullpen in theearly 80s. In 1983 they both had over 20 saves, a good number back then. Minton was an All-Star in 82, and Lavelle in 83. Both were pretty good about keeping the ball in the park.


  2. Lavelle is also 67th all-time on the Games Finished list, with 399. He had a successful career as a high school coach for many years after, in Virginia, then moved on to the college ranks. See the first link on the references for the Wikipedia article about him.


  3. There’s a bit from a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that I always remember. He said something along the lines of the truth in a war story is whatever the storyteller decides it is. That’s probably true of most stories from personal experience. If it was sunny outside that day, in your memory, then that’s what it was unless or until someone tries to prove otherwise. And that person is probably full of shit, anyway.


  4. I read and loved The Things They Carried and surely must have been influenced by it in terms of how I think about the malleability of the past.



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