Archive for the ‘Teams’ Category

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Bullpen Buggy

May 17, 2022

What’s your favorite souvenir? Mine was probably what you see here, or a version of it: a cheap plastic replica of the bullpen cart used in the 1970s by the New York Mets.

I wish I still had it. I’m drawn to the toys I played with as a kid. They helped me then, and I’m still looking to them now. That’s I guess what’s going on with the Worcester Birds, my ongoing attempt to cope with life, with stress, anxiety, grief, white nationalist terrorism, fascism, climate failure, etc.

Fun!

Anyway, I’ve placed the Worcester Birds in Shea Stadium, in part because it was, in 1977, a very tough place to get a hit, which I hoped would be a help to Mark Fidrych (it has: he’s been good at home, shaky on the road), and in part because it was where my father took my brother and me to see baseball, and where he once bought me a plastic bullpen buggy toy. I’ve written plenty about those days at Shea. Here’s a bit from an old article I wrote about it and some other stuff on Baseball Prospectus:

When I think of my own father beside my brother and me, the three of us in the predominantly empty stands of Shea Stadium during a Mets game in the 1970s, I see an uncomfortable bespectacled sociologist suffering in his blue, long-sleeve, button-down shirt through a day of things he disliked or even despised: subway rides, baseball, crowds, mid-summer humidity, sunburn, gross profiteering, noise pollution, air pollution, garbage, stenches, drunkards, dolts, loudmouths, slobs, the masses, the various and sundry opiates of the masses, and, last but not least, presumably, the idea, supported by the ample evidence of his offspring’s contrarily enthusiastic orientation toward many of these miseries, that one or both of his sons might grow up to live a life of meaningless escapist diversion.

During our once-a-year visits to see him in his book-glutted studio apartment in Manhattan, he dragged us to museums and subtitled foreign films, hoping we’d take to the finer creations of the human mind, but we generally saw them as crucibles to labor through so that we could get to the payoff of huge greasy slices at Ray’s on 11th Street and whatever installment of The Pink Panther was in theaters and, most of all, a trip on the groaning 7 Train to Shea. Our father complied with this arrangement. At Shea, besides grimacing and jabbing his fingers into his ears every time one in the unending stream of screaming LaGuardia jets passed just above our heads, Dad didn’t complain. He let us be fans . . .

At Shea in the late 1970s, a pitching change by the home team was facilitated by the use of a small electric cart that was shaped like a giant baseball with a giant Mets cap. The cart moved slowly across the outfield grass carrying the likes of Skip Lockwood or Bob Apodaca as meandering organ music played. I loved it. During one of our visits to Shea, my father bought me a palm-sized plastic replica of this bullpen cart. Even when the game was still going on, I could barely take my eyes off of it. I remember riding the subway home from Shea that day, rolling the little plastic baseball-cap cart up and down my Toughskins lap. Of all the things that ever came to me, it might have been my favorite souvenir.

https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/13672/baseball-proguestus-baseball-boyhood-and-bullpen-carts/

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G46: W 4-3 (Fidrych 6-3)
    • Fidrych hangs tough through 8, and Soderholm gets key hit in comeback rally in 5th
  • G47: L 19-8
    • The Crash Test Dummies, Stanley and Mingori, take a beating (combining to allow 25 baserunner and 16 runs in 7.1 innings)
  • G48: L 5-1
    • Lineup baffled by Rudy May; Forster takes the loss
  • G49: W 7-3
    • Tiant allows 3 in first but holds opposing lineup (featuring Schmidt, Foster, and Bench) scoreless for the following 8 innings for a complete game win; Soderholm stars again (3-3 with HR and 3 RBI); Boisclair also homers
  • G50: L 13-9
    • Dixon is battered, wasting a big outing from the offense
  • G51: W 9-5 (Fidrych 7-3)
    • Bostock homers twice, Boisclair goes 4 for 4 for his third straight multihit game, and Fidrych soldiers through all 9 for a complete game win. 

***

Standings:

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Rodney Scott

May 15, 2022

Not much to say tonight, but I want to keep the notes flowing. I’m not even sure why, except to say that writing is the only way I know of wrestling some meaning out of life.

I was out on my bicycle last night, riding home from seeing a band. The moon was nearly full. It was a warm night.

My boys played out back with some other kids from the building today and yesterday. Warm days, blue sky. There were kids of all ages back there. My older boy used to be the little toddler out there, the baby among the big kids. Now he’s the biggest kid, and even my younger boy is one of the big ones, and the toddlers are looking up at them.

I just moved here to Chicago. I always think that way. But I moved here a long time ago. I reconnected with Strat-O-Matic the year we moved here, started playing the online game. The rush of that first online season! I didn’t know anybody except my girlfriend, but I knew those cards, the way they stacked up all the possibilities in clean, orderly rows. The years—they flew. I married my girlfriend in Chicago, saw my sons born in Chicago, saw them go from the toddlers out back to the big boys.

I was thinking all this as I was riding home through Chicago under the near-full moon.

Rodney Scott enters a game as a pinch-runner. He steals second base. He steals third base. These are dice rolls. He could be out, each time, but he’s safe, each time. A fly ball is lifted to centerfield. Rodney Scott tags and runs toward home. Another dice roll. It’s Cesar Cedeno out there. He’s got a powerful arm. That’s what I’ll say, a powerful arm. I almost used the most common figure of speech for an outfielder with a strong arm, but I’m through saying that someone has a gun as if it’s a good thing.

Every moment is a dice roll. You never know when it will end. And it all goes by as fast as Rodney Scott.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 40 through 45:

  • G40: W 4-2
    • After team allows 43 runs in three games, Bill Lee halts the skid with 5 shutout innings. After the bullpen coughs up the lead (Lee still winless), Tony Muser gets it back with a 2-out 2-run double in the 9th.
  • G41: W 5-2 (Fidrych 5-3)
    • Fidrych allows 2 runs in 7 innings, and Tekulve clinches win with a hitless 5-out save.
  • G42: W 3-2
    • Ron Jackson with 2 hits, including a home run; Terry Forster (6 IP, 1 run) with the win and Bill Campbell (3 IP, 1 run) with the save.
  • G43: W 6-3
    • Ed Kranepool hits a grand slam, and Tekulve pitches 2 perfect innings for the save.
  • G44: W 11-5
    • Kranepool with 5 RBI and a home run; Al Cowens with 4 hits.
  • G45: W 5-4
    • In the 9th, pinch-runner Rodney Scott steals second and third and scores the winning run on a sacrifice fly; Tekulve earns the win with 2.1 shutout innings.
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in and out of the garden he goes

May 12, 2022

This image is from an MLB documentary on Mark Fidrych. If you’re familiar with a particular musical terrain, you’ll recognize the band associated with the skull and roses design on his shirt, even if you can’t make out the lettering around the design. As you can see, Fidrych is smiling, if not beaming. You might guess that he’s describing a high point in one of the concerts of this favorite band of his. But in fact at this point in the documentary he’s in the middle of looking back at and describing the spring training injury in 1977 that proved to be the beginning of the end of his time at the very top of major league baseball and American pop culture and some kind of miraculous expression of joy. Those of us who love Mark Fidrych always want this part to have gone differently. We want him to have been able to keep pitching like he did in 1976, keep showing us the way to life as a game to be grateful for and to enjoy. He surely wanted it to go differently too. He was a fierce competitor, for one thing. Also, he knew right from the start the gift he was given, and he didn’t want to squander it. I’ve been trying to bring him back in hopes of extending his moment of pristine excellence, but it’s been more ambivalent than that so far, with glimpses of the untouchable Bird occluded by messy pummelings, and maybe that’s just as well, because it pushes me deeper into the mystery of Mark Fidrych. He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and then he wasn’t. But he kept trying to get back for years, even spending two seasons beyond his last major league game struggling at minor league Pawtucket. More than that, beyond that, he seems to have kept a hold on the gratitude and capacity for love and happiness that he expressed to the world during 1976. How did he continue to push on through? How did he get to the other side? He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and he goofily leapt for a lazy, fungo fly ball and landed somewhere else, outside that garden, somewhere much closer to where most of us spend our days. What’s your secret, Bird? How can you look back on what was lost and still smile?

***

As for the Bird’s imaginary team: I could use some help. In the Strat-O-Matic online league I’m in, you can dump a guy through game 42 and be able to apply 95% of their salary to picking up a free agent. Between game 43 and game 81, you get 90% of a cut player’s salary, and after game 81 you get 80%. The Worcester Birds are through 36 games, so if I’m going to make any moves, I’d be wise to make them now. The team is in first, barely, and they’ve been generally doing what they’ve been designed to do, on a team level: hit well and field well behind Mark Fidrych. Fidrych, for his part, has been up and down, great at home and lousy on the road (see game notes below), and anyway he’s certainly not going anywhere. But I am considering moves involving a couple of the underperforming hitters.

If you want to general manage along with me, the Worcester Birds stats are here.

In addition to the stats, I’m considering if the player has a message to add to this exercise in reading the dice rolls throughout a season to try to figure out my own life. I don’t know if you can help with that, but for example dropping a struggling Keith Hernandez for Ed Kranepool appeals to me not just because it would free up some salary for other trouble spots (such as possibly replacing doomed Dan Thomas in the lineup, possibly with offseason gravedigger and Massachusetts native Richie Hebner, and upgrading run-hemorrhagers Mike Marshall and Bob Stanley on the pitching staff) but also because I don’t have any strong personal associations with Keith Hernandez, while Ed Kranepool pulls me to 1977, Shea Stadium, sitting beside my brother and my father, the latter oblivious to the terrible baseball unfolding on the field below, instead reading the New York Times through the whole game and plugging his ears and grimacing every few minutes as a LaGuardia jet roars overhead.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 31 through 36:

  • G31: L 12-2
    • Fidrych surrenders 7 hits and 3 runs in 4, earning the loss, and Mingori mops up with a filthy mop (11 hits and 9 runs in 4 innings).
  • G32: L 3-2
    • Lee leaves the game in the 8th with the score 1-1, but the runner he left on second is allowed in by the bullpen, and he gets his third hard-luck loss. He’s 0-3, the only pitcher on the team without a win, despite having the lowest ERA of any starter.
  • G33: L 6-3
    • Marshall gives up 5 runs in 5 innings. Burke with 3 hits in loss.  
  • G34: L 6-4
    •  Tiant extends his scoreless streak to 19 innings but then falters, hitting the showers in the 6th, and Tekulve serves up a gopher ball to Evans in the 8th to decide the game.
  • G35: W 6-4
    • The team stops a season-high 5-game losing streak by rallying furiously with 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th and a game-winning two-run homer by Bostock in the bottom of the 9th. McClure pitches 2 scoreless innings for the win.
  • G36: W 4-0
    • Fidrych and Campbell combine on a 4-hit shutout. Fidrych, now 4-3 on the season, is two different pitchers so far: great at home (2.55 ERA), lost on the road (5.74 ERA).

Standings:

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in another time’s forgotten space

May 10, 2022

What are your ways into joy? I’ve had a few. Mark Fidrych was one. Another was the world he came to me from, baseball. Another was the main way that world came to me, baseball cards. Then as I got older, left childhood, there was music. And then certain drugs became a part of it, until the openings they helped create formed rusty, serrated edges. I kept trying to push myself through the openings for some time after all they did was snag me, cut me.

Joy flowed in childhood, yelped and gasped in my younger adult years. Now I mostly see it in murmurs, echoes. It’s also there in moments with my kids, deep and fleeting, pulsing with love and ruined by worry. Always with them: what next? So sometimes I miss the illusions from my young and stupid years of some more permanent joy. Baseball flowing through me, or music. Yesterday, nothing stronger in me than coffee, I walked my dog around the block while listening to “Franklin’s Tower” from the Grateful Dead’s 4/23/77 show in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a version where you can hear the crowd going berserk, in whoops and scuffed-up hand-clap rhythm, and the band rides that wave. I started skipping a little as I listened. Skipping! Or maybe sort of a stiff-limbed skip-jog. Imagine what this looked like. I’m 54, tall, pale, beady-eyed: an ostrich. If I looked out the window of our building and saw someone doing something similar, I’d mock them. “Hey, family,” I’d say to my family, “check out this hideous display coming down the sidewalk.” But I had no visible witnesses. So I indulged joy’s echo.

That Springfield show was part of the band’s renowned spring 1977 run. The dates of that tour ring out among the fans of the band as if written on large white signs, none more prominent than 5/8/77, the Barton Hall show at Cornell University. If you’re not a fan of the band, it’ll no doubt seem like the same unpalatable tangle of overcooked wheatgrass linguine as everything else these hippies have produced. But for those who count the band as one of their portals into joy, this 5/8/77 show presents the musicians at one of their nimble peaks. But the prominence of the show in the band’s mythology also stems from some random dice rolls of community and technology. No one would have known about the show beyond those who attended it if not for the practice that had grown around the band in which fans taped the shows and then traded (like baseball cards) the tapes, and that show in particular would not have risen to legendary status over the years had it not been one of the vibrant, crisp recordings captured by Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson. Even if you weren’t there, you can go there, again and again. I’ve been going there a lot lately. I keep burrowing back to these fragments of the past. Listening to 45-year-old recordings. Imagining baseball based on a 45-year-old season. Imagining the Bird.

Is there joy in this burrowing? I don’t know. There’s breaking into a brief skip-jog, there’s a half smile. There’s compulsion, a slight numbing, maybe a brief abating of worry. Sometimes I think of this burrowing again and again into the past as wormlike, an aimless tunneling through dead matter, around and around to no purpose but to remain within the familiar, eating it, shitting it, tunneling then through the shit. And then sometimes I think of it like I’m an ostrich. Jamming my head down into the ground to avoid the present, the future. What now, what next? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see.

***

Fuckin Ostrich, Bill Lee is thinking. He’s just given up a 3-run first inning home run to Larry Parrish. It’s the day after he, Mark Fidrych, and Dan Thomas ended up, on a whim, taking a hitchhiker all the way from outside their team’s home stadium in Worcester to Cornell University, through a fucking snowstorm no less, and after making a wrong turn and going through Cooperstown with the spirit of Rube Waddell whistling through the goddamn pines, so that the whole thing started to take on a mythic edge, especially after the introduction of some small cardboard tabs that the glaring weirdo hitchhiker provided to the baseball players as he was leading them into the concert. They were circular and tiny, no bigger than the head of a small nail, and with a design on them of a clock centered by the many-armed Indian deity Krishna, which Lee figured, as he placed the tab on his tongue, meant that fairly soon the time was, finally, after all these years, going to be ABSOLUTELY NOW. And it was for the duration of the concert, that birthing galactic cataclysm, a now that was past and present and future all at once, and this lasted also through the drive back, though starting to singe at the edges, and all through the rest of the night and into the next day, crumbling, crumbling, until, as game time neared, a more customary presentation of space and time finished accruing itself around Lee, and it was at that point that he found himself in his team’s clubhouse, sitting on a bench, looking into the pale, beady-eyed face of his manager, Josh Wilker, who was informing him that he, Lee, was going to be the starting pitcher in that day’s game.

“I’m what?” Lee said.

“You’re up. You’re the guy,” announced this incompetent. “Or is there a problem?”

“Problem?” Lee said. You’re the problem, he had thought. I can fall out of a helicopter into a volcano and be ready to pitch. You’re the mumbly know-nothing of this operation.

“Just give me the ball,” Lee said.

But now, watching Larry Parrish lumber around the bases, Lee is fuming. The Ostrich doesn’t look my way but once or twice the whole goddamn season and then the one day when I’m trying to sort out my ass from my elbow just a little after seeing into some Truths that, if he ever pulled his head up out of the ground and got a peek at them, would have him shitting his pants, THAT day he’s gotta send me out to the hill? When maybe I could have used a minute to reflect and realign my cosmic navigational system just a little?

But fuck it, Lee says. You can’t count on management.

So he settles down and, despite having to steer around periodic after-flashes of the night before (it’s a little like pitching during a lightning storm), Lee authors four scoreless innings to keep his team in the game. When Parrish gets to him again, this time just with a bloop single, Lee reluctantly glances over at the dugout, and, goddamn it, sees signs that his day is ending. As usual Wilker is refraining from entering the field of play and is instead, the bureaucratic coward, sending out one of the flunkies on his coaching staff, who all seem so devoid of personality as to be flat, computerized extensions of the manager, who is himself not exactly Sammy Davis Jr. wowing them at the Sands. Lee gets one final aftershock from the Krishna acid, and it makes him shudder, as if he’s seeing a final bleak flash of the future, the last thing we’ll all ever see in this screen-glow burrowing we now think of as life: the robotic pitching coach approaching the mound to take the ball from Bill Lee’s hands is revealed to be a humanoid swirl of 0s and 1s.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 25 through 30:

  • G25: L 3-2
    • Lee surrenders only a 3-run homer in first but team can’t recover. They leave the tying run in scoring position in 6th, 7th, and 9th. Campbell with another strong, wasted stint (3 scoreless innings)
  • G26: L 5-4 (16)
    • Crushing loss; after Fidrych has nothing (13 hits in 4.1 innings) heroic bullpen effort (10 2/3 innings, 1 run) wasted; Morgan, Munson, Soderholm all injured; would-be go-ahead run stranded in scoring position in inning 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15. Lopes scores on a grounder in 16th after singling and stealing two bases off of beleaguered backstop Ed Kirkpatrick 
  • G27: L 12-4
    • A shit show. Garbage man Mike Marshall is battered (12 hits and 7 runs in 4 IP); Ed Kirkpatrick allows 6 stolen bases and commits 2 errors 
  • G28: W 9-5
    • Munson returns, restores order (2 hits, 1 HR, 3 RBI), McClure with 3.2 scoreless innings and a win 
  • G29: W 3-0
    • Tiant with 6 shutout innings (now with no runs allowed in his last 16.1 innings), Campbell with 2.1 scoreless (and Tekeulve with 2 outs for the save)  
  • G30: L 6-2
    • Stanley gets swatted around. Campbell strong again in relief

Standings:

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“I could not feel my feet hitting the ground”

May 6, 2022

Through 18 games, the Worcester Birds are 12 and 6 and are leading their division in the hallowed “Auto League 460121” of the Strat-O-Matic online game. Mark Fidrych has pitched spectacularly well in one start and has scuffled otherwise, but with help from a potent lineup and an unexpectedly effective bullpen, he’s notched 3 wins, keeping him on pace at this very early stage to surpass 20 wins. He’ll be the main point of interest for me over the next few weeks as this simulated reconfiguring of the past unfolds, but you can’t say he’s been the story of the team’s hot start thus far.

If I were following this team the way I followed baseball in 1977, the story of the season so far would ring out loud and clear, as my main point of contact with the action back then was studying the batting averages and league leaders in the newspaper. Studying is not even the right word. Using, maybe? But to what purpose? I’m not really sure, but if a player for my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, was near the top of the list in any of the major statistical categories of the day, I would fixate on that name. I might go find the player’s card in my collection. I would imagine being that player. And the ritual, or whatever it was, didn’t actually restrict itself to merely a search for Red Sox players. I felt compelled to memorize everyone, or to try to, from the very bottom to the top. Especially the top. I think that’s why I reacted to Lyman Bostock’s death when I was a kid by tacking to my wall a clipping of the Sunday averages with his name near the top. He had become a part of my mind, and not just any part but some aspirational euphoric pinnacle, part of a personal Sistine sky I was painting on the roof of my brain to replace the dark and inexplicable with fixed, glowing stars.

I’ll tell you more later about the brightest current star in this new fabrication of reality. For now I just wanted to capture a glimpse of Eric Soderholm riding high. His 1976 and 1977 seasons were something of a reverse echo of those same two years for Mark Fidrych. As Fidrych struggled with injuries in 1977 after his brilliant 1976 season, Soderholm posted a career-best season in 1977 after sitting out the entire 1976 season with injuries. Soderholm experienced a more extreme break from baseball in 1976 than Fidrych did in 1977, and similarly Soderholm didn’t achieve the heights in 1977 that Fidrych did in 1976 (because nobody ever got that high).

Still, Soderholm got pretty close. Closer than most of us ever get. As I fixate on his name at the top of the leaders lists, I imagine that feeling. In a great interview with oral historian Mark Liptak, Eric Soderholm reports about what it was like at the pinnacle in 1977:

Mark Liptak: Perhaps your greatest personal moment that year was on July 30, a nationally televised game on NBC. The Sox had come from behind to beat the Royals on Friday night. In this game the Sox trailed 3-2 in the 7th when you came up against Doug Bird. Bird was a tough pitcher because he threw almost sidearm, yet you drilled a three run shot in the lower left center field deck to give the Sox a 5-3 lead. It ended with the Sox winning 6-4. Talk me through the at-bat, what you were feeling, especially when you hit the pitch.

Eric Soderholm: That was the most powerful, impacting moment I had in my career. As you were asking the question, I was thinking about it and I still get goose bumps. When I hit the ball I thought it had a chance. When it went in the seats the energy that came from the fans shook the park. It was a magical moment, the park was electric. As I was running the bases I could not feel my feet hitting the ground. I mean that. The place was up for grabs. I remember that I took a big jump to touch home plate and then I was mobbed by the guys. Incredible.

from Eric Soderholm interview with Mark Liptak

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 13 through 18:

  • G13: W 8-4
    • Munson 5 for 5 with 2 home runs and 4 RBI. Dixon earns win with 1 run in 5 innings. Cruz with 2 hits, including a homer.
  • G14: L 3-2
    • Lee now two for two in wasted, strong starts (5 innings, 1 run), and Soderholm blasts his 6th home run.
  • G15: W 13-7
    • Cruz 3 for 5 with 3 runs scored; Bowa 3 for 5 with 2 RBI
  • G16: W 6-4 (Fidrych 3-1)
    • Bowa with a game-tying 2-run homer; Soderholm with 2 hits and a homer; Tekulve with 2 scoreless innings for the save
  • G17: W 11-7
    • Soderholm with 3 hits and a homer; Hernandez with 3 hits and 2 RBI; Bostock with 3 hits
  • G18: L 5-4   
    • Morgan with 3 hits and a homer; Campbell with 3 scoreless innings

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Through Eight

May 5, 2022

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

This breathless moment of anticipation and hope never actually happened in real life. But what even is real life? Everything is always changing, even things that have already happened, so maybe what we think of as “what really happened” is merely a first draft, and there are infinite revisions of that draft. In one revision that’s currently unfolding in a simulated baseball league and in my mind and in these words, Mark Fidrych is through eight innings and has not allowed a hit.

In his actual career, the closest he came to a no-hitter was the first time he started a major league game, on May 15, 1976, when he racked up 6 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians before Buddy Bell opened the seventh with a single, and Rick Manning followed with another single, and that was about it for the Indians that day. That 2-hitter that launched the Bird’s magical 1976 run would still be standing at the end of his career as his game with the fewest hits allowed in any of his 56 major league starts. He had a lot of talent as a pitcher, but he wasn’t unhittable. His astounding success in 1976, in which he went from a complete unknown to the best pitcher in baseball, rested on his ability to lock in, to flap and pace and pump himself into a goofy magnetic shamanic trance, which in turn enabled his near flawless execution of the simple impossible Prime Directive of Pitching: keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.

He didn’t have Nolan Ryan’s stomach-hollowing 100-MPH fastball, Steve Carlton’s brutal, misanthropic slider, Bert Blyleven’s limb-locking curveball, Phil Niekro’s irrational, decentering knuckleball, Gaylord Perry’s lawless, diving spitter. He didn’t glower and terrify like Goose Gossage or spin and hesitate and obfuscate like Luis Tiant. He didn’t overpower anyone or trick anyone or confuse anyone. He just threw pitch after pitch that traced a sizzling line at the knees of the batter and over the black stripe on one side or another of the plate. And while that was enough for him to pitch better than anyone in the world for one year, it didn’t strip from opposing hitters the ability to make contact with his pitches. He was never unhittable.

That was one of the beautiful things about the summer of the Bird. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. When a teammate made a good play for him he bubbled over with appreciation, pointing, gesturing, smiling, talking. Always talking! Waving to the fans, beaming, amazed—of course he couldn’t do it without us either. Shaking hands with the ump! Shaking hands with the cop! Talking, always talking. Even to the ball, of course to the ball. The most famous thing about him: he talked to the ball! And why not? Isn’t there a beating spirit alive in everything, all things, all beings? Isn’t this world all one thing in a million billion pieces, held together—if it’s held together and not falling apart—by love?

I was a kid when I saw all that, and I’ve never gotten over it, and I never want to. I was a curly-headed boy, eight years old, weird and happy and scared and overpowered and in love with baseball and the world. He was me, I was him. It was the same story for anyone who saw him—he was us, the way we wanted to be and the way we wanted the world to be.

He started flickering out the next year, and soon enough after that he was gone.

Except he’s not gone. That was the first draft, and we’ve been finding new ways to revise him ever since. I found a new way myself the other night, lying in bed. Before going to sleep, I checked to see if the latest three games for my Strat-O-Matic online baseball league had been posted, and they had, so I checked the score of the first game, a 14-inning win, and imagined that the dramatic nature of that win, along with the team’s early sprint toward the top of their division, built extra electricity for the following game, Mark Fidrych’s third start. His first start had gone poorly, and the second start had been decent, good enough for a win. Nothing spectacular yet, no signs of the Bird in full flight. But maybe this game would be different.

Instead of going straight to the box score for the result of the game, I clicked on the replay feature, in which the game unfolds in a gradual, no-frills readout of batters’ and pitchers’ names and at-bat results and the progression of runners around the bases. I lay there in the dark next to my curly-headed younger son, who had fallen asleep between my wife and me. My wife played a Tetris-like game on her phone, her end-of-day ritual. My son was on his stomach, and his back rose and fell slowly with his breathing.

Inning gave way to inning without a hit for the opposing team. I imagined the building din around the frenetic broad-shouldered stalking concentration of the Bird, imagined his appreciation for Geronimo making a running over-the-shoulder grab, for Bowa making a tremendous backhanded stop and throw to a fully-extended Hernandez at first. It wasn’t a flawless game for the Bird. He made an error in the first, surrendered a walk in the sixth. And in the bottom of the eighth, after Hernandez botched a grounder, allowing Paul Blair to reach, he seemed to lose focus altogether and walked two men to load the bases. At this point I was barely breathing at all. I imagined Thurman Munson rising from behind the plate and walking slowly, grumpily, to the mound. Can you see this? I can, or I’m trying to. The lean excitable long-haired smooth-cheeked pitcher jerky, shifty, unspooling, spinning out, the lumpy unshaven catcher not moving at all, glowering, trying to look his pitcher in the eye. Finally he thumps him in the chest with his mitt, and not lightly, to bring the pitcher’s darting gaze to his own. Now he can deliver his message clean and clear: Keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.  

And so Fidrych gets the next batter, a soft looper to Bowa, to end the eighth inning, stranding a runner at every base. Can you see it? The Bird applauds Bowa again, points to Munson (who ignores him, or appears to), and bounds toward the dugout in a way that makes it seem that beneath the stadium turf is an enormous trampoline. The whole place is going absolutely berserk.

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

***

Part of me wants to leave it there, with the possibility still alive that he’s going to make it all the way, that three more outs will come and go without a hit, that the team will swarm Mark Fidrych and carry him off on their shoulders. But what actually happens is maybe also OK. Maybe it’s more like real life, but still with some magic. He gives up a hit to the lead-off batter, Bob Watson. He gives up a hit to the next guy too, George Foster, and two outs later, he gives up a third hit, to Paul Blair, and once again the bases are loaded. Once again Munson goes to the mound, but this time I see it all differently.

“I got it, Cap,” Fidrych says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We got it.”

He gets Jose Cardenal to ground to Bowa to end the game, and that’s that. No ecstatic swarm on the mound, no lifting the hero and carrying him off. The last out doesn’t make the place explode like it might have if there had been no hits at all, but in the moments after the last out the sound from the crowd builds, feeding on Fidrych, who is in the middle of the diamond thanking everyone around him and then turning to the crowd and pointing and waving, thanking everyone, absolutely everyone, and the sound keeps building and building.

We don’t carry him. He carries us.

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 7 through 12:

  • G7: W 10-6
    • Soderholm homers twice; Thomas triples again and drives in 2. Tekulve continues bullpen’s success with 2 scoreless innings.
  • G8: W 8-4
    • Bostock (4 hits) and Hairston (3 hits) lead 17-hit barrage. Campbell and McClure (notching second save) log 4 shoutout innings in relief
  • G9: L 6-3
    • Mike Marshall struggles, but team is in it until Campbell gives up a 3-run blast to Pops Stargell in the 8th (all unearned due to Soderholm lead-off error)
  • G10: W 4-3 (14 innings)
    • Tekulve with 4 hitless innings; Mingori with 4 scoreless innings. Cruz starts comeback with 2-run homer in 6th. Bowa drives in Hairston with a single in 14th
  • G11: W 9-0 (Fidrych 2-1)
    • Fidrych carries a no-hitter into 9th. Glenn Burke with 2 hits, 2 RBI, and a steal. No-hitter broken up by Bob Watson (like Enos Cabell, who ruined the Bird’s first start, Watson is a key figure, perhaps the key figure—given that he’s the one who says, “C’mon, let the kids play!”—of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) (and his notable hit in this imaginary universe comes on the anniversary of the day he was celebrated by Tootsie Rolls as the scorer of major league baseball’s one millionth run) (what I’m saying is, if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Bob Watson), followed by 2 more hits, but Fidrych retires Don Money to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
  • G12: L 2-1 (10 innings)
    • In the loss, Bill Campbell extends an inexplicably brilliant start to the season for the low-priced bullpen with 1 run scored in 5 innings (through 12 games, the reliever corps of Campbell, Mingori, Tekulve, and McClure have given up 4 earned runs in 44 innings for a 0.82 ERA)
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Week 1: Ed Kirkpatrick

May 2, 2022

Mark Fidrych’s new imaginary team, the Worcester Birds, has played its first six games and is holding its own, despite some tough breaks and despite the lack of any unmitigated heroics by its ace pitcher/reason for being. Below are thumbnail sketches for each game so far, followed by some more general notes on themes, signs, hallucinations. For each win, I’m going to bold the two stars of the game and see at the end of the year who showed up in that tallying the most. As of right now, Joe Morgan and Eric Soderholm are the early frontrunners with two mentions each, a fair reflection of their play so far, as Morgan leads the league in batting average and steals and Soderholm in RBI. But the story so far, in a strange way, has been Ed Kirkpatrick. That is to say, I’m approaching this whole endeavor with a belief that it is trying to tell me something. And in this first week of simulated games, the message has something to do with Ed Kirkpatrick.

  • G1: L 5-3 (Fidrych 0-1)
    • Early exit for Mark Fidrych, early exit for Thurman Munson (HBP, injured). Randle gets Bird teetering in the first, and Cabell finishes him off in the third.
  • G2: W 9-4
    • Luis Tiant with a solid start. Joe Morgan homers. Kent Tekulve notches a win. Ed Kirkpatrick HBP by Lyle but stays in
  • G3: W 5-3
    • Eric Soderholm homers. Tom Dixon pitches 3.2 1-hit shutout innings before injury. Tekulve notches another win after recording a single out
  • G4: W 13-6
    • Steve Mingori with 4 shutout innings in relief for win; Soderholm grand slam; Kirkpatrick HBP again (by Ken Brett) but stays in, tying the score (he also has 2 hits in the game)
  • G5: L 4-3
    • Another instant exit for Munson (HBP, injured); Bill Lee’s good start wasted; Rodney Scott scores on a Larry Bowa suicide squeeze to tie game in 8th, then Cesar Geronimo botches one, Lee is lifted, and Bob Stanley allows go-ahead hit
  • G6: W 5-4 (Fidrych 1-1)
    • Morgan with 3 hits; Dan Thomas with a huge triple; Fidrych with win after another very rocky first inning but recovery with no earned runs (and 1 unearned) over next 5 innings

OK, before getting to Ed Kirkpatrick, a little on that first game, and on Strat-O-Matic itself, and on the ongoing random gamble of life. To tie all these preamble thoughts to a name and an exasperated interrobang: Enos Cabell?!? That’s the guy, or to be realistic for a second, the series of unique mathematical outcomes, who ultimately ruined Mark Fidrych’s chances of getting off to a magical start to the season. The Bird had already struggled through a rough first inning, but he’d followed that by retiring five guys in a row, and while he ran into another threat in the third, things looked good for him to get out of it when Enos Cabell came to the plate with two outs. Here’s what the matchup looked like in terms of the cards:

To explain how good things looked at this point, it’s probably helpful to know a little about how Strat-O-Matic works. Strat-O-Matic gameplay involves three regular dice and a twenty-sided die. The first of the three regular dice determines the column of the batter or pitcher card to refer to for the result, and the second and third regular dice combine to determine the result in the given column. In the 1977 cards for Mark Fidrych and Enos Cabell above, you can see that there is virtually no possibility for a hit for the situation of a right-hand batter facing a right-handed pitcher if that initial dice roll is a 5, a 6, a 1, or a 2. The results on the pitcher’s card ending in X–e.g., “GB(SS)X”—are probable outs because I loaded my team with gold-glove-level fielders to help the Bird. The result with a > sign next to it (column 2, number 4) is also a probable out, as I placed the Bird in Shea Stadium for personal reasons but also because the ballpark factors are favorable to pitchers: on those > rolls the 20-sided die comes into play and hitters have only a 1 in 20 chance of getting a single at Shea. The rolls with the pound sign beside them (3-11 and 3-12) are “ballpark factor home run” rolls, and those are a little more friendly to the batter at Shea. Lefty batters have a decent chance of homering—they will do so on rolls of 1 through 10 on the 20-sided die, and righty batters will homer on rolls of 1 through 7. And column 3, which appears to have several hits on it, is actually another probable dead zone for Enos Cabell, as the dollar signs in that column indicate that if those apparent hits are landed on when there are two outs and a runner in scoring position, they turn into outs, a reflection of that batter’s 1977 struggles “in the clutch.” (Other players have those dollar signs next to outs, and in those same situations the out turns to a hit.)

So for Cabell, his chances rested mostly on rolling a 3-8, a 3-9, or one of the rolls in the middle of Bird’s one shaky area, column 4. But even in the unlikely event that those rolls came up, it would just further bend the back of Firdrych’s start, not break it. Fidrych will give up some singles here and there, but he keeps the ball in the ballpark, an amazing feat in homer-happy 1977. And with the outstanding defense behind him, that should be enough to keep him in games.

Anyway, Enos Cabell, one of the stars of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (he can be seen in the Astros dugout, putting in the thespian effort to point out at the field at Tanner Boyle making his stand), rolled a 3-11 with the first three dice and then got a number between 1 and 7 on the 20-sided die, and the Bird’s chances of a game 1 win were over. I don’t know math enough to tell you precisely how unlikely a result that devastating for the Bird was, but from playing Strat-O-Matic all my life I can tell you it makes me want to punch a hole in the wall, which I did when I was a kid playing Strat-O-Matic alone in my room and the dice kept landing weirdly and against my needy wishes. “Punched a hole in the wall” is a little misleading. I was and am a weakling! The walls of my childhood room were flimsy sheetrock, and it wasn’t so much a hole as a dent. I covered it up with something, possibly moving over the newspaper clipping of the Sunday batting averages that had Lyman Bostock’s name near the top and that I tacked to my wall somewhere because it felt like something I should do.

Which brings us, does Lyman Bostock’s name, to the topic of death. This post is already way too long for me to go very deep into it now, but it will hover over the season of the Worcester Birds. For one thing, nine of the 24 members of the team have, in real life, passed away. Some went early, others were able to hang around a little longer. It looked like Ed Kirkpatrick was going to be among the former; in 1981, he went into a coma after a series of compounding events. He was in a car accident that seemed minor, but then doctors found a blood clot traveling toward his brain and performed surgery, and during that surgery he had a heart attack that put him in a coma for six months. He came out of the coma and lived on until 2010, but he was paralyzed. I don’t know much about his life, but I think that Kirkpatrick, whose nickname was Spanky, naming his wheelchair Sparky was a sign that he showed the same dogged, sparkling resilience after baseball that he showed during his playing days.

And during this Strat-O-Matic afterlife, or so it appears. Kirkpatrick is the lowest-paid member of the Worcester Birds, and he was not expected to play in any of these first six games, but he’s played in all of them. The starting catcher, Thurman Munson, was hit by a pitch and injured for three games in his second at-bat of the season, and then in the first at-bat of his first game back from that injury, he was hit by a pitch and injured again. After this second drilling, a brawl ensued. Right? Your starting catcher and grizzled field general, already burdened by an air of impending tragedy hanging over him, comes back from an injury and is hit in the very same spot where he was injured? Fists are gonna fly. And I just read in Singled Out that Glenn Burke once decked two guys during a wild minor league brawl in Quebec, so I see him flying into the on-field melee to drop, I don’t know, Reggie Smith and Jim Tyrone. I’m starting to see a lot of things. In my usual Strat-O-Matic compulsiveness I don’t take time to imagine the events related to any of the game’s algorithms with any depth, but with the Worcester Birds I’m going to take my time. I’m getting a second chance to see Mark Fidrych, so why wouldn’t I try to slow everything down?

So I see Ed Kirkpatrick, who in 1977 is at the very end of his long career. In between Munson’s first and second injury, Ed Kirkpatrick himself was hit by pitch twice, in both cases injuriously, according to the dice roll and his card, but in the Strat-O-Matic online game there’s an override in which a team catcher can’t be injured if there are no other healthy catchers on the roster. Usually I don’t think too much about this unrealistic immortalizing of the backup catcher, but here, to make it real, maybe because for whatever reason right now I need it to be real, I see Ed Kirkpatrick grimacing in pain, even buckling a little, but then he peers into the dugout and all the players there, non-catchers all, wear a wide-eyed “what do we do now?” look on their faces. Ed Kirkpatrick has no choice. He has to keep going.

He entered the majors at age 17, a phenom. Though he never attained stardom, he played for 16 years at the highest level of his profession. He found ways to make himself useful, playing for 6 teams and logging games at 6 of the 8 positions on the field (all but pitcher and shortstop). In his last season alone, 1977, he played 5 of the 8 positions while bouncing from the Pirates to the Rangers to the Brewers. Keep going until you can’t. That’s the message I’m getting from Ed Kirkpatrick.

When Ed Kirkpatrick was first entering the action for the Birds, in the team’s very first game, there was a scene in the clubhouse that may or may not prove to be central to the team’s message to me. In the top of the third inning, Mark Fidrych had entered that clubhouse after getting the hook. Despite all the high hopes for him this season, and despite a roster and a ballpark designed to help him win games, and despite my need for him to instantly be the same indomitable miracle he was in 1976, he wobbled badly in the first inning and then was finished off altogether in the third by an improbable blast by Enos Cabell. He didn’t have to wait long for company in the clubhouse, as Thurman Munson was hit by a pitch and injured in the bottom of the fourth. At this point in the season the two men would not know each other well, and I imagine that one in particular, Munson, would be suspicious of the other’s ebullient manner on the diamond, so contrary to his own. But I see this: Munson enters a clubhouse that has been torn apart. Dents in the lockers (like the dent in my childhood room’s wall). Chairs and tables overturned. The author of this mayhem in the corner, still breathing hard, still steaming that Enos Cabell somehow flicked out his bat and caught a perfect low and outside fastball just right. Munson, gripping his throbbing wrist, sees Fidrych’s fierce disappointment and for the first time recognizes himself in the pitcher he’s thought of to this point as a weirdo, a flake. This kid wants to win.

“Was a good pitch,” Munson grumbles. “Fucking guy got lucky.”

“Jeez, what happened to you?” Fidrych says.

“Nothing. I’ll be ready for your next start. We’ll get ’em.”

But by Fidrych’s next start Munson had been hit again and shelved, and Ed Kirkpatrick was back behind the plate. Things started out pretty badly for the emergency battery. As seen above, Fidrych has a good Strat-O-Matic card, one with no walks and no home runs, but he does give up some hits, and he’s not great at holding runners on. Add Ed Kirkpatrick’s bargain-basement catcher skills and some tough rolls, and you get a first inning with four singles, three stolen bases, and three runs scored.

But Fidrych hangs in there, and so does Kirkpatrick. Fidrych gets his first win. Kirkpatrick, for his part, sees the team win in each of his four unscheduled starts. It’s a strange, unpredictable world. Each of the players mentioned most frequently in this post, Fidrych, Munson, and Kirkpatrick, have some bad dice rolls looming over them. I guess we all do. So what do you do?

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Mark Fidrych

April 29, 2022

Fidrych

I am building a team around Mark Fidrych. You can do this. You can do everything now. You can bring the Bird back to life. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m doing this through a portal that I’ve been relying on since 1981 to avoid limitations and endings. That’s the year after the limitations of Mark Fidrych’s often-injured body led to the end of his major league career. Really it ended for him just about as quickly as it began. In 1976, as a rookie, he was the best pitcher in the world (and, as I said on the first-ever post on this ancient blog, the all-time single-season leader in joy), and the following year, 1977, injuries limited him to just 11 starts, and he managed fewer than that in the following three seasons, pitching his last innings on a major league mound in 1980. The next year, when I was 13, I got my first set of Strat-O-Matic cards.

I occasionally, very occasionally, played Strat-O-Matic with others, but almost from the beginning it was a solitary pursuit. I used the game to simulate baseball games and seasons and to dissolve myself out of the world I was living in and into another one. I liked rolling the dice and tracking the action on my handwritten scorecards and adding up the stats and not feeling anything except the buzzing pull of strikeouts and home runs and stolen bases and diving catches and wins. It released some numbing chemical in my brain, I’m sure, except when it didn’t, which it didn’t when the dice didn’t conform to whatever I was hoping to see unfold in the cards and in my mind, or when I simply had been playing too much and it all seemed lifeless and empty. I did this for years, all through my adolescence, and only really let it go when I took on other, stronger methods for numbing myself. Marijuana for a while until it got in the way of my writing, beer for longer. A few years ago I stopped with the beer.

But I have kept on with the Strat-O-Matic, which I started up with again in the early 2000s when the game moved online. The online game doesn’t have the roll of the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but this makes it fit better into the smaller spaces I have available for it now than I did as a teen when I had whole wide aching afternoons to numb. It doesn’t have the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but it’s got enough. I can dissolve into the cards, into compulsive looping thoughts on lineups and platoons and starting rotations and trades and players to waive and other players to add.

I have thought at various times of giving it up. It’s one of those “on your deathbed” things. On your deathbed, are you going to look back on all the hours simulating baseball games as a good use of the preposterous gift of life? Asshole? But then there’s also, life is fucking hard. Take your pleasures where you can. Or actually there’s just: I don’t really want to feel anything right now, so I’m going to check on my Strat-O-Matic team.

For almost exactly as long as I’ve been playing Strat-O-Matic, using Strat-O-Matic, I’ve been writing, filling up journals at first, then writing all kinds of shit, poems, stories, blog posts, books, and always filling up more journals. All of it is a way, imperfectly and haltingly, to try to push back on my compulsion to numb myself. I write to try to feel something, to try to know what it is, and, ultimately, to connect to someone else. To connect with you, whoever you are. Maybe even to find in that connection some joy.

The greatest baseball player I ever saw in terms of making a joyous connection with others was Mark Fidrych. I want to bring him back to life. Recently the Strat-O-Matic online game brought out a 1977 game. They have a 1970s game that I play a lot, but it includes only the players that logged relatively steady playing time for a few seasons, and so the Bird does not exist within it. In the 1977 version, he does exist. And during that season, his performance on an inning by inning basis was not that far off from his legendary 1976 campaign. His limited playing time is reflected in the online Strat-O-Matic game by his being limited to start every fifth day, rather than every fourth day, and he may suffer an injury, but he also may get luckier in that regard than he did in real life.

I ranked him very high in my pre-draft rankings, after only Joe Morgan, and I got him. Immediately after the automated draft, another player in the league offered me a trade for Fidrych, and I explained in my declining of the trade that I was here for the Bird. He said he was too and was hoping to build his team around Fidrych. We got into a conversation where he shared that he had been 9 years old in Detroit in 1976, and I shared that I wrote a book in which the Bird was the brightest-shining hero. The reason I’m telling you this is that in the 18 years I’ve been numbing myself with online Strat-O-Matic, it was the first time I’d ever made a connection with any of the strangers I play against. For once it wasn’t only a solitary numbing. The Bird made this happen.

Like the other Strat-O-Matic online player who wanted him on his team, I built my team around Fidrych. I backed him with excellent fielding, put him in a pitcher-friendly park, and created a lineup that can score him some runs in that park. I don’t care as much what happens in the games he doesn’t start. I care a little though, because the Bird has opened something up for me. Maybe I can write about this lifelong compulsion, this thing that has always felt adjacent to writing but going in an opposite direction, away from actual life rather than toward it. Maybe not just Bird but the other players on my team from 1977 can help me see the world as it was then and the world as it is now.

The best part of a Strat-O-Matic online season is before it begins, when you can dissolve into endless imagining about different shapes your roster could take. I was mostly guided in my own roster creation by my goal of trying to get Mark Fidrych 20 wins, but after a certain point I started making choices of who to drop and who to keep by wondering what it would be like to follow them through the imaginary season and write about them. Thus, El Tiante and Spaceman are among those making up the threadbare pitching staff around Fidrych. Thus, Sundown Danny Thomas and Glenn Burke will see some action.

Thus, Lyman Bostock.

And in the middle of all the stories and all the endings and all the possibilities, there’s Mark Fidrych.

He’s back. And I’ll write about it.

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Tom Seaver

September 4, 2020

I’ve never seen God, but I once saw Buddha.

I was eighteen, and I’d hitchhiked from my grandfather’s house in East Dennis to Hyannis to catch a bus into Boston, to Fenway, where I bought a bleacher seat ticket. It was July 6, 1986, and Tom Seaver, in what would turn out to be his last season, was making his second start as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

It was the first time I ever went to a baseball game by myself. That might be one reason it sticks out among all the other games I’ve ever gone to. It felt like an adult thing to do. It felt solemn and lonely, but also like something that suited me. My childhood at its heart, which is to say at its most joyous, had been about togetherness, both real and imagined—the flickering togetherness between my older brother and me, the brief flashes of togetherness every spring from being on a little league team with other baseball-loving kids, the fabricated togetherness within these baseball cards, a whole universe of heroes surrounding and protecting me—and it was dawning on me that adulthood was going to be defined by a dissolution of togetherness. Maybe a need to hold on to some feeling of togetherness was what drew me to Fenway that day.

***

Last night I dug around for a long time in my chaotic box of baseball cards for one featuring Tom Seaver, who died earlier this week. The cards had once been sorted into teams, and some of this sorting still persists in diminished ways within the chaos, but for a long time I had trouble finding even a single vein of Mets cards. Dust was rising into my eyes, and my back started hurting. The process felt like my past was repelling me, like whatever order I’d been able to impose on my life through my baseball cards has dissolved. I started to feel exhausted by it all. But finally I found this card, a 1975 team checklist with uneven edges. I believe I scissored this card, and some other 1975 team checklists, out from the back of a box of cereal. I’m not sure anymore if that’s true. Details like this used to be so clear to me that they became a kind of orthodoxy at the center of my ad hoc spiritual orientation: the clarity of my memories was my morality, my sense of what was true and what was false. This was an extension of my vow as a child to remember everything about my childhood when I was older, so that I wouldn’t be an adult who didn’t understand childhood, or an adult who was disconnected from the truest self, the one that manifested in childhood. But my memories are dissolving, becoming increasingly less reliable. If they retain any substance at all that substance is akin to water-color paint, no more than something to use to make a diaphanous illusion, and then to use again to make a different illusion.

I’m glad, in the end, that I ended up with this card. It’s not like the Seaver cards I have, or think I have, where he’s either in the middle of his beautiful, powerful delivery or in a posed shot, glowering out at the viewer with the face of one of the sport’s most determined competitors. He’s not the star of the card. But he can be clearly seen, second row, third from right, and he’s smiling. He’s happy. This is the team that he came to define more than any player has ever defined any team. He’s together with them. A massive collection of players, it should be noted, far more than the number of players that would be on the active major league roster, as if the card’s other world-famous man, the one with the benevolently homely mug shown both in the inset and three figures to Seaver’s right, didn’t have the heart to dim anybody’s dreams of playing in the major leagues, and so for this moment there’s room for everybody, and this is OK with Tom Seaver, a pillar of winning and togetherness, and the seven-year-old holding this uneven card in his fingers got to bask in this togetherness that manifests with no other team more than this one, in the franchise for whom Tom Seaver earned one of his nicknames, The Franchise. As my friend Pete, a lifelong Mets fan, put it, when talking about Seaver’s death and more specifically about all the condolence calls he was fielding from friends about it: “It’s like a death in the extended family. And what are the Mets but one very big, very dysfunctional family?”

***

I might have grown up a Mets fan had my family stayed in New Jersey, where I was born, but we moved to Vermont just before baseball entered my life, the year before I got this 1975 card, and I fell in love with that state’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. But the Mets always remained like an extended family member to me, especially given that my father, who’d lived with us in New Jersey, moved to New York City when we moved to Vermont, and on our summer visits to see him he took us—begrudgingly, given his distaste for sports—to see the Mets. I never saw Seaver on those first couple of visits, and after June 15, 1977, he was gone, traded away.

So in 1986, when I was meandering through a lonely summer at my grandfather’s house and saw the chance to see him pitch, I grabbed it.

He was matched up that day against a left-handed flamethrower named Mark Langston. I’m not sure how much he gets mentioned these days, but at that time Langston was among the most electrifying young pitching talents in baseball. He had led the league in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984, and after an injury-shortened season in 1985 was on his way to leading the league in strikeouts again, and in starting a string of four years in a row in which he topped 200 strikeouts, an astonishing feat of power and consistency except when brought up in comparison to the pitcher he was facing that day, Tom Seaver, who had done it nine years in a row (and came within four strikeouts in 1977 of doing it eleven years in a row).  

I remember the game as a pitching duel between the canny, aging legend and the flame-throwing youngster. The final result, a 7-4 victory for the Red Sox, casts some shade on that memory, but a closer look at how things unfolded backs up my memory. Seaver held the Mariners scoreless for the first five innings, and Langston, after yielding a run in the first, was even better, recording fourteen outs in a row against the best team in the American League. In the bottom of the sixth, after the Mariners had tied the score at 1-1, Langston had a failure of concentration, surrendering a leadoff walk, and two batters later he compounded his self-made problems by bungling a sacrifice bunt attempt, which allowed the Red Sox to load the bases, and in he pressure of this situation—the bases loaded with slugger Jim Rice at bat—the phenom’s focus plummeted further, and he walked the normally free-swinging Rice to force in the go-ahead run. At that point the entropy swirling out from the talented left-hander on the mound spread to his teammates, third baseman Jim Presley muffing an inning-ending opportunity and allowing another run to score. Langston had been expelled from the duel, and though he finished out the game he was no longer linked up with a legend in a moment of grace but merely ordinary, allowing one home run to Tony Armas in the seventh and another to Marc Sullivan in the eighth.

***

One of my two most distinct memories from that game is not anything I can place exactly but is of Seaver at his center, Seaver on the mound. It was, I’m sure, a few innings in but before Langston blinked, when some elements of the game—flashes of threats from the opposing batters, flashes of Langston’s seemingly impenetrable brilliance, flashes of the unbeatable progression of time itself—had manifested as being in opposition to the goals of the 41-year-old man on the mound. None of us are going to last forever. Everything is coming over the mountain to undo us, sooner or later. So what do you do? Seaver, in the moment I hold in my mind as a guide for life, brought the ball and his glove hand together near the center of his body and set himself, and his shoulders rose up and down as he took a deep breath. I was hundreds of feet away but could feel him breathing, could feel it as if it was the whole world breathing. He had, it seems to me, complete possession of the moment. This was a person at the center of a togetherness spreading out beyond the bounds of the field, beyond even the bounds of time. This was Buddha.

Seaver, who said afterward that by the seventh inning he was “very wobbly,” came out for one more frame after his foe had come undone and retired the Mariners in order. The last out was a ground ball to second. From the bleachers I would have been able to see up close that the Red Sox bullpen had started to stir in earnest, and so it would have been clear that the great man was walking off the field for the last time that day. We all rose to our feet and cheered. It would be, as it turned out, the last time Tom Seaver would win a game in front of a home crowd. But what I remember more than standing up and into my new adult solitude with 20,000 others and yelling my throat hoarse was Seaver himself, walking slowly and steadily, neither rushing nor lingering, walking away, inevitably away, from the point at which he’d been, as much as anyone ever has, the center of the universe.

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Sid Bream

July 22, 2020

Sid BreamWhat’s It Good For?

part four of four

I don’t know why that man I met in the alley was carrying a plastic lion, or how long he’d been carrying it, or where he found it, or why the brief exchange with me seemed to prompt him to lay down his burden and continue up the alley, heading north.

I headed south, out onto the sidewalk of the street I live on. I didn’t pick up the lion. This was still not that long after those first days when I was afraid that touching any surface might bring the pandemic home to my family. I didn’t even want to be outside, let alone touch anything.

Since then the rate of people contracting the virus started briefly to dip, and then as caution about the virus abated the rate started going back up. Also, unidentified government gestapo forces are a thing now, shooting tear gas at people on their porches, throwing protesters into unmarked vans. Some of these fascist pawns are headed to my city right now. I didn’t ask for them to come. I don’t want them to come. No one wants them to come.

The morning after the intersection of my life with that of a man carrying a plastic lion, I took my dog out for a walk again, and the lion was gone.

The baseball season is starting tomorrow. I don’t care at all.

That lion! Where is it? What is it?

In the early 1990s, when I shared an apartment with my older brother, we once encountered the front grill of a car laying on the sidewalk and dragged it back home and put it on our mantle. Whenever our father came over to our apartment he complained about the car grill, specifically indicating a jagged metal border that had partially detached itself on one side of the grill, reaching out into the room like the tetanus-covered arm of a skeleton. We ignored the complaints. I filed them under the long list of evidence I was compiling that my father lived a fearful life, concerned more with safety than with feeling true life coursing through his body, or something, a feeling I never had either but wanted to believe was possible. I was, in truth, wracked with fear of everything. I still am.

I miss my father. I don’t know what happened to that car grill. We must have carried it out of the apartment when we carried everything else out. I kept carrying things from one place to another around New York City, than up to Vermont, then back to New York City, then to Chicago. A couple years ago my father passed away. I carried his vitamins out to the garbage, his books down to the basement, his ashes to a few different places.

Last night I watched that famous inning from October 1992, when Sid Bream had his moment. With a rally already starting to build, he reaches first base on four straight balls thrown by Doug Drabek. In the photo at the top of this page you can see Sid Bream as a Pirate, before he came over to the Braves. He was close with Doug Drabek, so much so that he and his wife were the godparents of Drabek’s children. In the photo at the top of this page you can also see another card hovering nearby Bream’s card. I don’t know if you can make it out, but it’s of Kyle Drabek, who just happened to be among the random cards that have made their way from random corners of my house to my desk.

I watched it several times last night: Sid Bream taking his lead off of second. He doesn’t seem to be carrying anything visible, but of course in the parlance of the game he’s carrying the potential winning run on his shoulders. Francisco Cabrera drives the ball into left field. Sid Bream starts running, pumping his arms, moving his balky legs as fast as humanly possible. It’s a moment of complete belief that life has a purpose.

What fixes the moment at home plate in time is that Sid Bream, after his slide, doesn’t get up, and after a moment he can’t get up. Had he bounced up to his feet after the slide, like a sprightlier player might have been able to do, like Dave Roberts did after scoring the tying run against the Yankees in game four of the 2004 playoffs, he would have quickly been subsumed in a mob, but he stays down and is frozen in triumph and joy by all his teammates piling onto him as he raises his arms and laughs and shouts with that big dumb beautiful mustache on his face.

I watched it again and again last night, the running, the slide, the pile-on, watched it all on repeat the way I listened to “Cremation” by Lou Reed again and again after my father died, and the obvious finally hit me: I was grieving for baseball.

The solidity of it, an illusion that carried me my whole life, is gone. Baseball isn’t gone, but whatever it still is or might be isn’t going to carry me, not now anyway.

Since this all began right around when pitchers and catchers would have been, in any other year of my life, reporting to spring training, I’ve felt like I’m carrying a weight. Sometimes it’s felt as strange and light as a baffling plastic lion. Other times it’s had no shape at all but has seemed as heavy and implacable as a thousand pounds of disintegrating cardboard.

What is it? What’s it good for?

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Doug Dascenzo

July 18, 2020

Doug Dascenzo
What’s It Good For?

Two

I used this Doug Dascenzo card to heed my sons’ request to crush a spider a few weeks ago. I kept him on my desk for a while because it seemed like something I might be able to write about, and here I am writing about it, although it took me so long to get around to it that the remains of the spider, which were initially on Doug Dascenzo’s face, have dried up and disappeared. The card moved around over the weeks it was on my desk. What ever stays in one place? It got shuffled to the bottom of a pile of other cards, fell off the desk, came back onto the desk to join a pile of things I didn’t want to deal with, including condolence cards I planned to write and an early draft of my will that I’d filled out using a free online service I accessed through my job. There wasn’t much leeway to do anything fancy with the free online will-writing service, but there was one small text box where I could add directions on what should be done with my remains.

Eventually Doug Dascenzo rose up off the desk to get pinned by a Lagunitas bottle cap magnet to the metal file cabinet beside the desk. Beneath Doug Dascenzo is a piece of printer paper I filled with empty boxes at the beginning of this year, the worst year I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know it was going to be so bad, of course, none of us did, though the horizon had certainly been darkening for a while. That darkening may have been why I resolved at the beginning of this year to push onward with work on the writing of a novel I’d been getting defeated by for a couple years, which is to say working on, a little, but mostly not working on. So each box on the piece of printer paper was an hour, 200 in all. I work full time and have two young children, so not a lot of time to write, but at night when the boys go to bed I write, working on that novel, sometimes for a half hour, sometimes for more, but the point is I darken one of those boxes at least a little.

We’re past the halfway point in the year, and I’ve darkened more than half of the boxes. The process helped me push past the enormous resistance from the blank page and, most nights, get to a place where I’m goofing around a little on the page. That’s all I could ever ask for. Maybe it’ll add up to something. Anyway I won’t stop until it’s something, unless, you know, something swoops down out of nowhere and flattens me.

***

I started writing about Doug Dascenzo last night, and it occurred to me today, while I was with my younger son in the corner of a small park near my house, that I have some sense of what will happen when I die. I don’t mean the part I mapped out in my online-form will, about how whatever I have goes to my wife or if she’s gone too to my sons, which will amount to some clothes and a bunch of old notebooks and a box of baseball cards. I mean what the experience will be like, what it will be like to die.

My son was pretending a thin fallen branch of a tree was some sort of motorcycle that was able to jet us back and forth across the grass, allowing us to travel back and forth across the continent from “home” (our backpacks and water and some cheese popcorn and our masks) to “California” and back and then to to “North California” and back, and then, finally, to “Malifornia.” Each time I got on the back of the vehicle and grabbed onto to his shirt and hung on, and he started running, and I sort of shuffle-ran along behind, making him laugh by losing my grip on his shirt and flying off, never quite making it.

That sounds a little like what death might be like, the feel of my son’s T-shirt slipping out of my fingers as he runs on ahead, laughing, but that’s not what I meant by my getting a sense of what it might be like to die. I’m almost nine years into being a father, and most of what goes on when I’m with them, purportedly playing with them, is in my mind, some manner of discursive thinking and daydreams, and today was no different, the boredom of the kinds of games that please a six-year-old pushing me toward thoughts of Doug Dascenzo, and it hit me that had I not randomly grabbed a Doug Dascenzo card from the mess of the floor to kill a spider a few weeks ago and subsequently pulled him and his Cubs hat and his blank expression into the gauzy orbit of my thoughts I would have not been able to, had I been asked to do so, distinguish in even the slightest way Doug Dascenzo from Gary DiSarcina. I might have been able, at gunpoint, to have blurted out that one of them had something to do, at some point, with the Angels, but that’s about it. Maybe one of them broke up a no-hitter? Or maybe they both seem to fit the stereotype of no-hitter foilers. Anyway, all of this is besides the point. The point is I might have once known the difference between the two of them, and I even may be able, with the writing of this and, yes, the inevitable Googling of both of them, to build them back into distinct entities in my mind, but this won’t last for long. I will lose any ability to tell Doug Dascenzo from  Gary DiSarcina. And that’s how it’ll go. Just as those two completely different people essentially become one indistinct journeyman in my mind, so will I in the vastness of the indifferent living eternity become one and the same with the sound of the cicadas, or my son’s smile, or the guts of a spider, or the beaten clover from here to Malifornia.

(continued)

 

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Mike Magnante

July 16, 2020

Mike MagnanteWhat’s It Good For?

One

I was in the room downstairs where we keep the drum set my sons bash on occasionally. It’s also the guest room, at least in theory. (What guests?) It’s also where my wife works. It’s also where I work. She works in there on weekends. I work in there during the week. I also write in there. It’s where I am right now. Anyway, this story of the summer when the world is dying or being born begins when I was in there. I was working. I used to go to an office for my job, but now I don’t go anywhere.

“Daddy, Daddy!” one of my sons yelled from the other room. I came out. They were both yelling.

“It’s a daddy longlegs! It’s a daddy longlegs! Get it out of here!”

Everyone in the house except me is afraid of most bugs, but especially centipedes and spiders. I couldn’t see him at first. My eyes are for shit. Finally I saw the spindly being, barely more substantial than an idea.

“Can’t we let him be?” I said.

“It’s OK to kill bugs when they’re inside the house,” my older son said, authoritatively.

“Kill him! Kill him!” my younger son yelled.

There were a couple of baseball cards in the corner. There are always baseball cards lying around. My younger son asks once every several weeks to play with a sack of them that I keep in the closet. He flings them everywhere for a while. Eventually we clean them up, or I mostly clean them up, but I always do a shitty job of it, and there are always baseball cards in the corners. They are, it turns out, perfect for swiftly killing centipedes and spiders. A book, by comparison, is too unwieldy, a magazine too floppy. A baseball card is just right.

The thing I killed can be seen spread across the 1992 Mike Magnante card at the top of this page. Part of his body covers Royals Stadium, which is now known as Kaufman Stadium. I’ve heard it’s a nice place to see baseball game. I’ve never been. I always planned to, vaguely. Now? The spindly, weightless idea of such a thing. It’s too much. To be sitting in the sun in a ballpark with thousands of others, the home team in white and ringing blue. Get it out. Get it out. Get it out of here.

(continued)

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Brett Butler

November 17, 2019

Brett Butler

“What is the point of life?”

My son asked me that last night. He’s eight and asks a lot of questions. He wasn’t asking this question rhetorically, as a bitter, narrowing complaint, as I often have. He wanted to know.

I started saying words, haltingly, clumsily. It felt like I was trying to put up an unfamiliar tent at night in the rain. The tent directions in my mind—what I was wrestling toward with my answer—were something along the lines of the point of life being an ongoing attempt to figure out the point of life. What a shit-ass shelter! But maybe it didn’t really matter so much. Before I’d finished jamming the last of my ill-fitting mumbly tentpoles into place, Jack was already asking another question.

“What happens when you die?”

***

In a way the moment has passed, the play in our view over, and in another way it is being extended, is still in doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the standing figure, the square-jawed All-American fellow with the square-jawed All-American name. He has been and will continue to be for some years an excellent  major league, adept at every facet of the game within his grasp to master, which is to say that he wasn’t graced with the ability—from nature, from God, who really knows?—to drive the ball far enough to clear fences with any regularity, but he was fast and smart and driven and highly coordinated, and he hit for a high batting average and drew walks and stole bases and fielded his position well and about as close to flawlessly as anyone has ever come, committing just 41 errors in 2,213 career games.

The prone fielder, who would have an even better career and end up in the Hall of Fame, is shown here in just his second year trying to mask his callow stature with a flimsy mustache, and you can see the very same expression in his face that’s in the cancelled baserunner’s face above him—too immediate to be defined as curiosity, but related: a breathless waking at the core of whatever it is to be alive.

If we’re standing tall, if we’ve been knocked down, if we’re sent here from God, if we’re the product of some accident—it’s the same at the core for all of us:

We all wonder what will happen.

***

This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don’t punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can’t remember the last time I did it. I don’t particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don’t particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I’m going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There’s no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.

***

If you asked Brett Butler, a devout Christian, the point of life, he would have an answer that could be illustrated by this baseball card.

“I believe if Jesus Christ was a baseball player,” he once said, “he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.’”

I don’t share Brett Butler’s specific beliefs, but I think his message could be one I could adapt to an answer for my son that would be better than me trying to explain my affinity for staring at baseball cards and writing about baseball cards and writing about life and sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall:

The point is to find something you love and do it as well as you can and try to find love for everyone in the world, even those you might come into conflict with.

Brett Butler would have an even clearer answer to my son’s other question, about what happens when you die. In a 1996 article dealing Butler’s battle with cancer, he said, “I’m not afraid to die. I know if I die, I’m going to heaven.”

***

I know what happens next. Not in life, not after life is over. But I do know what happens next in the moment depicted on this baseball card. The photo on this 1990 baseball card shows a game between the Giants and the Padres in San Diego during the day. In the 1989 season there were only a handful of games that fit those parameters, and in only one of them was Brett Butler involved in a force play at second base. It was the third game of the season, on April 5. Butler drew a walk off Ed Whitson to open the third inning for the Giants. Robby Thompson hit a groundball to shortstop Garry Templeton. Templeton got the ball to Robbie Alomar to force Butler out at second. Alomar threw to first while falling to the ground. His throw was not in time to get Robby Thompson. Butler had succeeded in breaking up the double play. There’s no record of whether he then picked up Alomar and told him he loved him.

***

I don’t know what happens next. But I can tell you that tonight during my pre-bedtime conversation with my older son, he asked me about demons and devils and angels and hell and heaven, and somehow we ended up imagining Spongebob Squarepants getting kicked out of both hell and then heaven for annoying the residents of each place so much with his unwavering enthusiasm for life. The angels in particular couldn’t believe he was so fixated on there being a Crusty Crab for him to flip crabby patties at in Heaven, and when he kept wailing that the Crusty Crab was what gave him meaning they finally booted him out of the clouds and he landed with a thump back down in Mr. Crabs’ office, where the boss docked him for missing time at work.

“But, Mr. Crabs, I was dead!” Spongebob wailed.

“That’s no excuse, Spongebob!” roared Mr. Crabs.

Jack beamed at me as I simultaneously wrote, directed, and acted out this episode. He kept waiting with attention and wonder to see and hear what would happen next, and in the telling and in his listening and in our love I’m reborn.

“So I guess Spongebob was reincarnated,” Jack said. This is a concept that Jack has been drawn to lately.

“Hi, Squidward!” I chirped as Spongebob.

“That’s what happens,” Jack said.

“Oh, no! You again,” I wailed adenoidally as Squidward.

“That’s what happens, I know it,” Jack said. “We come back.”

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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.

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Marty Barrett

August 30, 2019

Marty Barrett

Marty Barrett was often able to manipulate baseball reality, to make himself or the ball seem somewhere it wasn’t. This skill came out most memorably in his mastery of the hidden ball trick, which he pulled off several times. I haven’t been able to unearth any video of Barrett performing the hidden ball trick, but you can read an excellent Boston Globe retrospective of his devious exploits, and you can get some idea of his preternaturally nimble body and mind in this clip of him duping Billy Ripken. Marty Barrett was a magician.

***

Did you ever feel like you had an almost magical certainty that a player at bat was going to get a hit? I remember getting that sense sometimes with Nomar Garciaparra during the hottest streaks of his glory years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’d be watching him go through his series of obsessive pre-pitch tics, and a conviction would arise within me: Screaming liner into the gap coming up. And I was right every time, or so it seems to me now. A decade earlier, while sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium, I remember being convinced by something in Darryl Strawberry’s body language as he sauntered to the plate that he was about to pound a soaring shot into the right field stands, which he promptly did. It’s not exactly a miracle that I had premonitions of success about two of the more talented hitters of my lifetime, but the first player I remember having this psychic connection with was Marty Barrett, a decent but decidedly unspectacular slap hitter from when my childhood was ending.

For most of my life to the point of Marty Barrett’s arrival in the majors, I’d been a kid growing up in rural Vermont, staring at baseball cards, listening to games on the radio, studying the Sunday batting averages, and once a year going to a game at Fenway. The game existed, for the most part, in my mind. It was really only in the summer of 1986, Marty Barrett’s second full year with the team, when I was 18, that I began to actually see major league baseball on a regular basis. I spent that summer at my grandfather’s house on Cape Cod, which had a television that picked up the Red Sox games on Channel 38, and I distinctly remember as my grandfather sat in his remote controlled La-Z-Boy, eating Cheese Nips, and I sat beside him in his remote controlled hospital bed, raising and lowering my torso periodically, how Marty Barrett’s hot streaks would appear to give him an aura of potency. When he had it, I felt certain that he was going to line a base hit into the outfield. And he would!

Like all magic, I guess, my predictions of Barrett’s success can be explained by the mirrors and shadows of probability and perception. Barrett’s hottest streak of that summer coincided with what would have been my heaviest period of watching, late June into early July, after I quit my job as a canvasser for Greenpeace and hadn’t yet accepted that I was going to crawl back to the gas station I’d worked at the summer before to beg for a job. During a fourteen-game stretch in that span, June 23 through July 7, Marty Barrett collected 26 hits in 55 at bats for a .473  average, plus 7 walks for an on-base percentage of .532. Predicting that he was going to do well in any given at-bat during that phase was about as much a miracle as flipping a quarter and guessing which side would come up.

But magic is based more than anything in need. Marty Barrett was my portal into magic, into believing that the magical season that I had always been waiting for was finally appearing.

***

I know how to make a quarter disappear. It’s the one magic trick I ever learned. I learned it the year Marty Barrett starting playing professional baseball, in 1979. I was eleven years old, and after reading about the trick in the Magic Wanda column in Dynamite magazine, I performed it once, successfully, before retiring forever as a magician. I couldn’t take the burden of deceiving someone, of knowing the trick, of knowing the mundane source of wonder in the eyes of the tricked, in my case a slightly younger kid at school named Aaron, who thought that I was able to rub a quarter so hard on my forearm that it disappeared. I knew the truth of how I’d made it look like I had done this, and I told him immediately. He was disappointed, or maybe the more accurate term would be disillusioned. He would have preferred not to know. It had been for the thinnest moment a thrill to pull the trick off, but I couldn’t bear it even for a few seconds and didn’t want to have any part of it again.

I preferred to be the witness to magic, rather than its author.

***

In late October of 1986, in a dorm room in northern Vermont, I watched with three other Red Sox fans on a little television as Marty Barrett laced a single into centerfield to drive home Wade Boggs and give the Boston Red Sox a 5–3 lead in the top of the tenth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. From the start of the playoffs all through his at-bat in the top of the tenth, there had been a magic link between me and Marty Barrett, that feeling of certainty that was absent from any other part of my life. I watched and expected a base hit, and virtually every other time he came to the plate he delivered, winning the American league Championship Series Most Valuable Player award and performing even better in the World Series. In the bottom of the tenth inning, with the Red Sox one strike away from a World Series championship, the television broadcast brought up a photo of Marty Barrett, and he was congratulated as the player of the game.

One night a few weeks later, after all notions of magic had collapsed, I walked from my dorm to the empty building next door, which housed classrooms and administrative offices. On the first floor, just inside some double doors, was a vending machine. I was hungry, or maybe just bored. I put some money in, whatever it was in 1986 to get a candy bar or some chips, and made my choice. I don’t remember what it was, or what prompted me to start pressing more buttons once the metal spiral started to uncoil my selection, but I did start pressing more buttons. I also don’t remember what exactly my style was at first as I pressed those buttons, but once some tremors and sparks began emanating from the machine, once other metal spirals began shuddering and then uncoiling wrapped chocolate tubes and little plastic bags of salt and fat, I began rolling both my hands over as many of the buttons as I could. Bags of chips and candy bars and gum thunked down into the plastic catcher by my shins. Thunk! The machine began to smoke. Thunk! Thunk! Most of the spirals kept spinning until they were empty. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Finally, the glorious malfunctioning ceased. There were only a few products left inside the machine. I took off my jacket and shaped it into a makeshift sack to haul every bright mass-produced piece of this miracle back to my dorm.

Before I tell the rest of that story, which I’ve probably told you before, I want to revisit another story that’s been told many times, of the famous ten-pitch at bat by Mookie Wilson that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series in the bottom of the tenth inning. Just before the ninth pitch of that at bat, Marty Barrett stood on second base and yelled at Bob Stanley to turn and throw to him. Barrett had snuck over and, in the estimation of television color man Joe Garagiola, had Mets’ baserunner Ray Knight dead to rights. Stanley needed only to look and see this, and then to turn and toss a reasonably accurate throw to the sure-handed second baseman. By then the lead established by Marty Barrett’s run-scoring single had evaporated, and the game was tied, but at least the inning would have been over.

The Mets were well aware of Marty Barrett’s intelligence, and had probably even prepared to be on their guard against him. In Roger Angell’s report on the 1986 World Series, “Not So, Boston,” Angell veers momentarily into a meditation on Doc Gooden’s dip in performance from 1985 to 1986, and after quoting Barrett’s observation that Gooden’s problem was with his mechanics, Angell writes, “One of the Mets regulars said to me, ‘If Marty Barrett says anything like that, you can believe it. Anything from Barrett is a message from Western Union.’” But Barrett, like the greatest magicians, could manipulate his illusions even when everyone was consciously trying to avoid being entrapped by them. He found a blind spot in Ray Knight’s vision and slipped through it like a portal to the second base bag. However, Bob Stanley neglected to look back at him and, over the Shea Stadium din, couldn’t hear him shouting. Mookie Wilson fouled off Bob Stanley’s ninth pitch and, as you know, slapped the tenth pitch of the at bat on the ground up the first base line.

***

When I got back to my dorm with my coat full of snacks, among those who glimpsed my magical cache was the girl of my dreams. I’d had many girls of my dreams before that particular girl, whose name I can’t even remember, if I ever even knew it, and I’d have many girls of my dreams after that particular girl. She was perhaps the prototypical example of the central figure in this recurring, formative fantasy of mine, which relied on anonymity, uncrossable distance, and long, vague scenarios of complete and utter knowing of one another deep inside forever. My connection with this girl amounted to a few times in which she crossed in front of me on a walkway between buildings while I sat on a bench outside the library. She was small and cute and seemed shy, and I imagined the two of us magically connecting to shed our poetic loneliness. I was profoundly a virgin, eighteen years old and still without a kiss from anyone except my mother. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk to a girl, and even less of a conception that leering dreamily at one from a bench might have produced discomfort or worse rather than, say, some acknowledgment of the invisible pulling I was imagining myself to be doing, and then some sort of magical, reciprocal pulling back. Like all my dream girl scenarios, nothing came from my benchwarmer leering and daydreaming, but for a moment that November, on the night of the vending machine miracle, I thought it might.

She was with a guy, whose name I do remember, Paul. He was a year ahead of me in the creative writing program at the school and seemed to be garnering the most attention from the school’s two writing professors at that time. I envied him. It was unclear if the two of them were boyfriend and girlfriend, but they seemed to be in some sort of league together. In retrospect they were probably both stoned, which tends to produce that “in-league-with” feeling. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but the three of us ended up going back together to the vending machine. I wanted, I guess, to show this girl the magic I had found, and handing her a tiny bag of Doritos wasn’t doing the trick. I needed her to see what I had seen, a smoldering, absurd bounty piling up at my feet.

She put coins into the machine and pressed a button at random.

“Press them all,” I said. She did, hesitantly, and then I joined in, using my rolling palms method. Paul stood off to the side a little, smirking. Just one thing had thunked down into the plastic catcher. She reached in and pulled it out, and I guess I’ll remember what she said for the rest of my life as she looked down at it in her hands.

“Smoky bacon shit chips,” she said.