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John Smoltz

November 5, 2019

John Smoltz

My father’s books fall apart as I read them. The one I’m reading now, The World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe, crumbled into two pieces at the page 92–93 spread, in which Howe talks about Lillian Wald, a nurse who started the Henry Street Settlement and helped impoverished new immigrants like my grandparents, and perhaps did help my grandparents, or even my father. I don’t know. I saw this massive book on his shelf for years and wanted to read it, knew I should read it, knew that it would open up the mostly closed book of his childhood. I wish I had. I can’t ask him any questions now.

I tried to read, on yellowing pages folded into the book, his tiny notes. He dated the notes, so I know he read and thought about the book, and maybe about the history and trajectory of his own family, in 1985, the year I was expelled from boarding school for using alcohol and drugs. As was his habit, he crossed out most of his writing, second-guessing himself and his own ideas. He did turn over the crossed-out page and take some more notes and didn’t cross those out, but his handwriting is so cramped, another reflection of his unconscious attempt to minimize himself as much as possible, that I find it nearly impossible to read. I can pull out fragments—

Social construction of the Jew in western culture . . .

Jew as conscience of society . . .

Shaping of Jewish roles and self-definitions from [illegible] . . .

—but only enough to want to be able to ask him what his thinking, though even if he was still around and I could show him his notes, he probably would have waved them away. Or maybe he wouldn’t—who knows? That’s the thing: all he is now is a construction in my mind, growing ever farther from whoever he actually was.

My father also clipped and tucked into the back cover of the book the 1993 obituary of the Irving Howe. The large text pulled up as a mid-column excerpt—“His passion was ideas, his lifetime cause democratic socialism”—could have been my father’s epitaph. Howe was born a little earlier than my father, in 1920, and grew up in the Bronx rather than in the main setting of Howe’s book that’s been falling apart in my hands, the Lower East Side, where my father was born in 1925 and where, according to Howe, the newest, poorest immigrants massed before being able to venture father out into the outer boroughs, deeper into America.

There are other ways in which the obituary suggests that Howe may have had a somewhat firmer childhood footing in this land than my father. Howe’s father ran a grocery store, and even though the store failed, the mere fact of there being at least a brief period of ownership points to a relationship with America that was stronger than the one experienced by my grandfather, who worked in sweatshops before either receiving a head injury or succumbing to debilitating, if undiagnosed, mental illness, or both, and either way no longer being able to work, and finally, late in the Great Depression, dying by suicide.

Another obituary detail that paints Howe as a more strongly rooted American than my father is the mention of “occasional trips to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth (‘the greatest man in the Bronx’) play.”

The quote, apparently taken from Howe’s own writing, reveals a reverence for baseball, and so could never have come from my father. My father was more squarely situated on the other side of the Old World/New World divide about that subject, which I read about this morning and took my own notes on a yellow post-it, which is also slipping out of the pages and will slip out of the grasp of my own sons, if they ever feel the urge to search for me as I’ve been searching for my father. You can see my notes in the photo at the top of this page, next to my baseball card bookmark.

The notes refer to some mentions Howe makes to baseball. He’s not focusing in his book on baseball, but it comes up as he talks about the rift between the immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the children they were raising in America. Many of those children gravitated to baseball, a first step into something joyous and physical and free in the new world. Their parents didn’t understand it, dismissed it, feared it. My Uncle Joe, who was several years older than my father and grew up on the streets, fit this model, learning the game and following it all his life. My father was the youngest in the family, relatively protected, pointed with all the force of his mother’s love toward study, and so it’s not surprising that he internalized the view of baseball surely held by his immigrant parents, who no doubt held a view similar to the one Howe unearthed in a letter from a worried immigrant parent to the daily Yiddish newspaper, The Forward. It’s something I can imagine my father saying, something I can see myself absorbing unconsciously as his dismissive, distancing response to the all-consuming passion of my childhood:

What is the point of this crazy game?

***

For most of my life this crazy game was very near the center of who I am, and so when the recent World Series seemed to come and go at such a distance from me, I had to consider that I don’t know who I am anymore.

I skipped even trying to see the first two games altogether. I can’t say that I was organized enough in my thinking to call this avoidance a boycott, but it wasn’t totally unrelated to that sort of a stance. I catch snippets of the happenings in the world, mostly from glancing encounters with social media, and those snippets generally cause me to view the world in a dimming light and, in turn, to withdraw to an ever-farther remove from the happenings. One of those snippets—a member of Astros management proudly taunting female journalists about the presence of a perpetrator of domestic violence on the Astros roster—caused me to say, and not for the first time, Jesus, why do I even bother with this shit?

But who am I without baseball? A couple weeks ago, when the World Series was still unfolding, my older son happened to ask me what it is I know best. I knew the answer instantly but fought it, because, first of all, what good does it do me, or anyone? Second of all, where can I go from here? I’m not going forward with this area of knowledge. I’m not going to become more engaged with the current version of the game, an increasingly stagnant narrowing into the monotonous all-or-nothingness of home runs and strikeouts, each of those outcomes once among the most exciting moments in the game but now grimly radiating the actuarial inevitability of corporate strategy, each punctuated more often than I care to see by the momentary victor aggressively grabbing his penis and testicles. The game, the business, belongs more or less to horrible billionaires assholes and post-pubescent millionaire dunderheads. But what am I going to do? It’s too late for me to be a geography whiz or potter or know the names of birds.

“Baseball,” I told him, sort of miserably.

And so that night I tried to tune into the World Series telecast, which I assume still features the fellow partially pictured at the top of this page, John Smoltz, in the color-commentator role offering (as I am here) sour, self-aggrandizing denouncements of the present state of the game. But we don’t have cable, and one of the tendrils in the antennae contraption we use to pick up regular network TV broke off a while back, and it’s getting harder to pull in any of the stations. I waved it around, held it over my head, moved it to a couple slightly different spots, and then, after two or three minutes of this, I gave up and streamed an episode of a TV show about fictional horrible billionaire assholes. A few nights later, for Game Five, I more or less repeated the process of attempting reception, again to no effect. When the series reached Game Seven, I did what I usually do when there are problems I can’t solve, but even the resolver I married couldn’t get it to work. If the Red Sox had been involved, or—because of my friends who are fans and my old connection to the Steve Henderson teams that my father used to, despite his deep-seated distaste for sports, take my brother and me to see—the Mets, I would have kept trying, or bought a new antennae, or gone to a bar, or something. This time, it being Game Seven, the best I could do was pause for a few minutes in my streaming of the show about the billionaire assholes and listen to the Nationals radio broadcast on my phone for the last three outs.

There, I thought. I in some way paid attention to the World Series. I haven’t disappeared from this world altogether. Not yet.

***

My grandfather never played with my father. I’m sure of that. They had very few interactions at all. There was a walk to a park, which may have been on the same day as a walk to a synagogue that my father remembers as having beautiful stained glass windows. There was a strange conversation very near the end when my grandfather asked my father about school and implored him to keep studying hard. My father, at that point so used to considering my grandfather as a silent stranger in their tiny tenement apartment, says he didn’t respond to this apparent last attempt to connect. He was too shocked. And then my grandfather was gone.

My father didn’t play with me. Or if he did I don’t remember it. He must have at least tried to participate at some point, because I somehow absorbed the awful understanding that he didn’t really know how to throw a ball. He was for the most part a gentle, if sporadic, presence and tried to be there for my brother and me when he could, and he did take us to those games at Shea Stadium every summer when we visited him. But he was, I understand now, primarily a reader of books, and at most moments in his life it would have been his preference to be reading.

It’s the same with me. I even have a T-shirt, from the bookstore where I met my wife: I’d rather be reading. But I want to play with my kids, or rather want for them to have a father who plays with them. And I try. But there’s always that “I’d rather be reading” ache, and I suppose my boys pick up on it, absorb it as their legacy in a family line of fathers and sons who have trouble with the mess and chaos of play, who prefer the apparent, illusory order of words.

But every once in a while I hit on some way in which I can find some game we all like. A few weeks ago it happened when they were hurling some of my old baseball cards all over the room. I got the idea to adapt the simple card game War to baseball cards. We’d all gather a stack of cards and put down a card one at a time, and whoever presented the best player at each turn would win the turn and the other two cards. I made the decision in each case, using what it is I know best. My younger son got bored quickly and went back to hurling cards around, but my older son loved it. He especially loved the 1989 Donruss John Smoltz rookie card in his stack, as each time it came around it allowed him to win a card from me.

“He’s the best. Can anyone beat him?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

“I don’t want to lose him,” he said.

“I know what you mean,” I said.

***

At a playground today, I sat on a bench and watched my sons play with two other boys. They are slowly learning that this is more fun than dragging me onto the playground. I felt a wave of relief and gratitude for this development and for them and for everything I’ve been given in my life and suddenly imagined my father sitting beside me. His thin legs crossed, his backpack on his lap, his long, bony fingers resting on top of the backpack. Inside the backpack, what? Vitamins, pens, a case for his hearing aid, a thick book fattened by some folded pages containing his tiny illegible handwritten notes. I imagined asking him about the book he was reading, and telling him about the book I was reading, and the two of us both watching my boys run and laugh and swing sticks around like swords, authoring imaginary worlds that arose and dissolved as quickly as the windy eddying of the dry, fallen leaves all around them. And for a second he was there beside me so palpably that I started to cry.

3 comments

  1. I think every Jewish household of a certain class and time had that book on the shelf. Mine did.


  2. Good lord, Josh. That last paragraph.


  3. Fantastic!



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