Archive for the ‘Boston Red Sox’ Category

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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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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.

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Bill Buckner

July 2, 2019

buckner

I used to see the years of my life as cleanly as those on the back of a baseball card. Lately everything’s running together and accelerating. Lately I became a father, lately I lost my father. Lately I wonder what’s mine. What’s anyone’s?

“Jesus, look at how tall Jack is,” I said to my wife today as our oldest son walked by. She and I were sitting on a bench in a little park near our house. I remember when Abby, pregnant with Jack, drove the two of us by the park the day we came to look at the condo for the first time.

Our kid can play there, I thought. That memory, a clear one from just before the years began running together, seemed as I sat on the bench as if it had just happened.

“Life’s going by fast,” I said now.

“Yup,” Abby said, “and we’re fucking it up.”

Before I could ask her what she meant, exactly, one of our boys did something to the other, or took something from the other—who knows? It just happened a few hours ago and already the details have dissolved.

Lately I watch my sons claim pieces of the world for their own, not just possessions but hurts and stories and desires. Lately I scattered my father’s ashes, packed up his books and toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. Lately I dug around in my baseball cards, looking for one player in particular, and because it took me a while to find this player within the entropic chaos of my collection, my mind wandered to the future, not far beyond the expanding borders of lately, to where my own sons will be sifting through the very same cards in my absence, packing them up with my guitar pics and Trident gum and notebooks, scattering my ashes.

All you are is a brief awareness. I’ve felt it most keenly in moments that seemed in retrospect like premonition. The time I looked across a bookstore where I worked at a coworker with a pink stripe in her hair and wondered. The time I rode by the little park by the condo for sale and wondered.

Is this mine? Is this my life?

The relentless momentum of time turns the question into a statement. You clamber, always, awkward with hurts and desires, forward. To paraphrase a Denis Johnson notion from the novel Angels, you move to meet your responsibilities. That must have been the familiar synaptic flash in Bill Buckner’s mind when he reckoned the direction of that ground ball.

Mine.

You move toward your life and your life moves toward you.

***

It was never about the ground ball. It was about escaping a burden.

***

That fall I lived in a suite in Arthur Hall on the campus of Johnson State College. The drinking age changed that year from 18 to 21, but anyone who had just turned 18 was grandfathered into legal drinking. I lived with seven other guys in the suite who were my age, 18, or thereabouts, and we spent that one brief stretch of months in which our lives intersected drinking so heavily it was as if we misunderstood the loophole allowing our legal drinking as a requirement to drink until we puked our punch-colored guts out our third-story windows. There were keg parties, Everclear parties, parties where we bought several cases of cheap beer we called Green Death and guzzled the bottles and went into Luis Tiant windups to hurl them against the concrete wall of the common area, shards of broken glass piling up like green ice. There were whole weeks when the booze and the potent marijuana smoke from a waist-high Graphics bong made the carpeted floor of the suite pitch and rock like the deck of a ship, and we all staggered around laughing and woozy and aimless and immortal. The seven other guys were my friends, or so I would have said at the time. None of the friendships lasted. None of the seven guys except me even lasted so much as two more semesters at the college, let alone graduated. None of them kept in touch with me, nor I with them, nor any of them with one another, so far as I know.

I remember them all. They as much as anything are mine.

***

After digging for an hour or so, I found in my refurbished computer box full of cards a 1986 Bill Buckner. The story on the back of it is told almost entirely in numbers and begins in 1968, when my own story began. That’s when Bill Buckner, at the age of 18, reported to the Dodgers’ minor league club in Ogden and batted a blistering .344. He moved into and through his life with great purpose. He took this rare gift that is this life and made all he possibly could of it. In 1985, the last year of statistics shown on this card, the 35-year-old Buckner played in every one of his team’s games and established career highs in hits, doubles, and RBI while equaling his personal best for home runs and stealing 18 bases.

We fucked it up. You, me, everybody.

***

The day Bill Buckner died, I watched the Mookie Wilson at-bat. It was the first time I’d watched it since it had happened 33 years before, when I watched it in the suite in Arthur Hall. It’s a long at-bat, aptly described as epic in most reports. But to me, watching it unfold, foul ball after foul ball slicing all over foul territory in every direction: it’s like watching the snapping undulations of a downed power line. Finally a ball is hit fair, and Bill Buckner moves toward it. It’s a tougher play than it looks. With Mookie speeding up the line, Buckner will have to field it quickly and cleanly and either pit his injury-slowed body against a player with Olympic sprinter speed in a race to the base or shovel a perfect toss to another slow-moving teammate, pear-shaped Bob Stanley. The ball on its third bounce stays down. Why am I explaining this to you? You know as well as I do that everything we know, everything we’ve ever touched, will slip through our grasp.

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Ralph Houk

January 16, 2019

ralph houk

Kingdom Come

One

My dad wore a watch. A series of watches, actually, all shitty. What was his shitty watch pipeline? I don’t know, but I can see it in my mind now, the prototypical Louis Wilker timepiece, the plastic band, the digital readout displaying an incorrect measurement of the current moment. Can I really see it? No, it’s gone. But almost a year into his absence I’m in the sort of seeing phase, which I suppose will eventually dissolve into no seeing at all. There it sort of is, his cheap watch, in between the folded-up cuff of his blue button-down shirt and his pale, thin wrist.

His wrists! I’ve often blamed them for my athletic failings. As much as I loved playing baseball and basketball, all the thousands of hours I played those games, I never got very good at either, and at some point I began to notice that the guys grabbing rebounds away from me had much thicker wrists, which I paired up with that smug truism about athletic mastery: it’s all in the wrists.

This realization that my inherited anatomy doomed me to failure in my chosen pursuits fit in nicely with my overall stance on life, which came into formation for me when I was a teenager, right around the time of the 1984 baseball card shown above that I’ll eventually get to: victimhood. What chance did I, spawn of a bookish ectomorph, have against the strapping plank-wristed offspring of farmers, bow-hunters, snowmobile enthusiasts?

Anyway, this baseball card made me recall that my thin-wristed sociologist father got so gaunt in his old age that he had to poke new holes in the flimsy plastic band to keep the thing from sliding up and down his arm like a hoop bracelet.

***

It’s difficult to tell in this card whether Ralph Houk, the son of a Kansas farmer, had particularly thick wrists, but it would seem that his watch was considerably nicer than any my father ever wore. This is as you would expect for such a widely respected eminence. The nice watch, that prototypical retirement gift, is in synch with a muted, dignified tone of impending capitulation in the card, also present in Houk’s weary body language and the faintly sour grimace creasing his gentle features. He’s had about enough. Can you blame him? I too at that very moment was justifying quitting on baseball—which was, because of my childhood devotion to it, very much like quitting on life—in part because of the soul-extinguishing mediocrity of Houk’s plodding, meaningless 1983 Boston Red Sox. Unlike me, Ralph Houk had been around for a while by that point and had seen just about everything there was to see in this world. He managed Mark Fidrych in 1976 and Mantle and Maris in 1961. He’d won the Silver Star as a soldier in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle of the war for United States troops and one of the bloodiest clashes in U.S. history. With the Bird, with the ’61 Yankees, he’d known unparalleled joy, unparalleled glory. And before all that (as he described in a 1994 article by Steve Jacobson), he’d seen men he was responsible for, men standing right beside him, get blown to kingdom come.

***

I imagine that Ralph Houk’s watches told the correct time. My father, who also served in World War II—though thankfully for my own existence on a stateside naval base, far from the action—may have once had watches that told the right time, but by the time I started noticing, this was no longer the case. My father’s watches, like all the timepieces he was in charge of setting, were always wrong, set several minutes ahead of the actual time, as if he never really wanted to be anywhere except some nearby but wholly imaginary destination that he’d never reach.

But of course the watch on Ralph Houk’s wrist in this baseball card, because of the sun’s reflection, tells no time at all. Maybe that’s what we’ll see, the last thing we’ll see. Maybe it’s the last thing my father saw. Just about a year ago he was on his way to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee my mom later found in the microwave. Maybe he looked down at his watch and in the slim dawning moment of the massive stroke bursting in his mind like the birth of the universe he saw on the face of his discount wristwatch a blinding shard of infinite light.

(continued)

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Red Sox Future Stars

January 7, 2018

Red Sox Future Stars

The other night I surfaced into consciousness at 4 or 5 in the morning and worries about my job seized me. I couldn’t shake them—nagging chaotic anxieties about all the thousands of things flying at me on deadline. I’m gonna miss something, I’m gonna fuck up. Eventually I just got out of bed and meditated for a while in a chair in the kitchen. It helped a little. There’s a basic goodness in us, in everything, shining beneath the lacerating illusions. We are stardust, we are golden. When Jack woke up and came out to the kitchen, I was able to listen to him, to see him. He was smiling and looking at me with his bright blue eyes.

“Daddy, I had the craziest dream,” he said. “I was flying.

I remember having a dream that I was flying when I was a kid. I can’t really place it in time, but it could have been in 1980, the year I met this card. I was twelve then. I’ve come to think of that dream, where I bounded up into the sky and flew around my town, as a response to an increase of gravity in my life. The years leading up to 1980 had seen me bounding every morning up the road to a multi-age free-school classroom where we made animated movies and wrote plays and learned Russian and sat in a circle sometimes or lounged around sometimes. By 1980 I’d shifted to a junior high several miles away with desks in rows and time sliced up into anxious chunks. Instead of one warm teacher and a lot of long-haired parent helpers I was now under the glancing authority of a collection of grown-up strangers who identified me in one way or another as a problem.

Meanwhile the Red Sox were also crashing to earth. They’d come close in 1975, 1977, and 1978, but in 1979 they’d finished a distant third, and it would get worse in the years to come, a little worse every year, more or less, throughout the rest of my descent through junior high and high school, where I went from Cs to occasional Fs to, finally, in my senior year at a boarding school, expulsion. That was the year I discovered getting high, thank fucking god. Thank god for marijuana! Getting expelled was no fun, being driven home from that school for two hours by my poor grim mom was no fun, taking the GED was no fun, but getting high with my friends saved my life, if you define life by the notion of having some interest in living it.

When you’re a young child, if you’re lucky, as I was, you get this sense that the future will include stardom. I’m not talking about fame but rather the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and you open a new pack of cards and find a card featuring a player or, in this case, players, from your favorite team. Connection to some kind of brilliant glory. A kind of flying. A high. By 1980 I had probably felt the gravity of the world just enough to not believe the proclamation that the players in my hand were future stars. I knew who they were already, as they’d all made appearances with the Red Sox in 1979, and Chuck Rainey was the only one who’d shown any glimmers of hope, but even his promise seemed subdued, as he seemed no better than a Bob Stanley type, at best. But still, it was a brand new card that I could add to my beloved stack of Red Sox, and I’m sure I felt at least a little of the pulse of the stardom at the core of this life.

I was talking on the phone the other day to my best friend from boarding school, Billy Z, the one with whom I rediscovered that life could have some laughs in it, some highs, some joy. For the last twenty years or so he’s been a Montessori teacher. I was telling him that we’re homeschooling our boys.

“Dude, that’s the best thing you can do for them,” he said. I was glad to hear him say that. I said something about how I love following their lead, seeing where they want to go with their learning.

“That’s the basic idea at Montessori, right?”

“Yeah, the tough part for my kids is when they get to junior high and it’s suddenly all about nothing but punishments and rewards. A lot of them just shut down.”

After I got off the phone I thought about how that was exactly what had happened to me. And I thought about how meeting Billy Z was one of the most important things that ever happened in my life. By the time I met him, in 1983, all the Future Stars featured in this card were gone from the Red Sox, all out or on their way out of forgettable major league careers, and I had completely stopped collecting baseball cards, releasing that habit and joy of childhood as if I didn’t deserve it. I was learning nothing in school except to believe that I was a problem, and I really didn’t have any friends. My mom saw this light going out in me and thought boarding school might help, and though I didn’t rediscover learning there, and in fact became even more buried under a feeling of academic failure, I did make a friend, Billy Z, with whom I laughed like I hadn’t in years. We’d sit there in our dorm room beds in the dark laughing and high, all the failure falling away for a little while. It felt like there was life to be lived. We were flying toward future stars.

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Rogelio Moret

October 17, 2017

Rogelio MoretBaseball cards freeze things in place. I guess I first sensed this in 1974. I was six and learning that nothing stays frozen in place. We’d moved to a new state, away from my father. I found I liked baseball cards. I liked things that stayed the same.

Rogelio Moret’s 1974 card freezes him in place at the moment when he was, in teammate Bill Lee’s eyes, “headed for the mountaintop.” He’s just 24 years old here, fresh off his first full season in the majors, in which he went 13 and 2 with a 3.12 earned run average. “Roger had the potential to be a Sandy Koufax,” Lee said. “When he threw the ball over the plate, he was unhittable.”

I never saw Moret play, so he was only a figure frozen in place on a baseball card, and then he was a name that was gone from my favorite team, and then, strangely, changed, as if not even your name can stay the same. He was somewhere else, someone else: “Roger” Moret. With the Red Sox he was Rogelio, but he was only with them through 1975. From then on, as I watched the Red Sox come close but fall short, undone by shoddy pitching, and as I sifted continually through the cards I had, including this one, Rogelio Moret was some fixed idea, frozen in time, the very element the Red Sox were missing. According to his cards, he almost always won. In fact he was the Red Sox all-time career leader in winning percentage until Pedro Martinez surpassed him. I couldn’t understand why they’d let him go.

I also didn’t know until years later what happened to him afterward, when he was on the Texas Rangers. In 1978, before a game, he froze in place in front of his locker. He was naked and holding a flip-flop in one hand. No one could talk him out of his catatonic state, which went on for 90 minutes, until the team medical staff sedated him, and he was taken to the Arlington Neuropsychiatric Center. He rejoined the team later in the year and pitched sparingly, and that was it for his time in the majors. It wasn’t the first time he’d had trouble in the blurrier world outside the clear borders of the diamond, and it wouldn’t be the last.

According a Facebook page for someone who seems to be an older version of the rail-thin young man pictured here, Rogelio Moret now lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He only posted twice on that page, the last time back in 2012, but I also found a photo of him on Twitter from 2015 at a ballgame in San Juan. He looked happy.

I hope he’s OK. I’ve always hoped he was OK, even as far back as 1974 when I got this card and wondered why, despite his poise, his balance, his alert focus, his shimmering, impeccable numbers, he seemed a little sad and lonely.

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Bronson Arroyo

April 4, 2017

Bronson Arroyo

All the stars are gone but one.
Morning breaks, here comes the sun.
Through the night, now sinking fast.
Show me something built to last.
–“Built to Last,” Hunter/Garcia

Somewhere in my twenties I saw a team picture of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers on the wall of a bar in Brooklyn. I can’t remember where, and most likely I saw it in more than one place. It was something in the same family of wall hangings as portraits of Jesus or JFK. Here is a pinnacle, a point of beauty or truth or certainty, to hold against the tendency of everything to fall to ruin.

I wanted to someday hang a similar picture on my wall. I didn’t know what people would be in the picture but I knew what jersey they would be wearing. I doubted it could happen.

But it happened. The picture is still on my wall. It always will be. Always? What a ridiculous word. I watched from my window as the World Trade Centers fell. There’s no always. But I guess as long as I’m around and have a wall the picture will be on it.

The picture changed. It used to be about something else, and now, like everything eventually, its main subject has become time.

The players in the picture gradually passed from the present into the past. It seemed for the last couple of years as if the central figure in the team picture, figuratively if not literally (he is in the middle row but off to the left of center), David Ortiz, would be the last to pass out of the picture’s state of grace. When he retired at the end of 2016 there were no other members of the 2004 World Series champions left on any major league rosters.

But this spring the player on the upper right margin of the picture, the same player shown in this card, has made an improbable comeback. He has in essence defeated time, at least in terms of winning a battle. For the previous two years he’s been out of baseball, but he got healthy again and pitched well this spring for the Reds, and he’s scheduled to make his first start on Saturday, back in the majors.

***

It’s 11:47 a.m. on September 6, 2003. A Topps photographer snaps a shot of a 27-year-old pitcher who to that point hadn’t been able to stick in the majors. He’d spent the previous three seasons shuttling between the majors and the minors for Pittsburgh before the Pirates waived him, and he’d spent most of the 2003 season with Pawtucket, the Triple A affiliate of the team that had claimed him off waivers. In August he pitched perfect game for Pawtucket, and soon after that the Red Sox brought him up. He looks confident in this picture, as if the fleeting feeling of perfection is still lingering in his limbs.

Behind him, just above the level of his steady gaze, is the iconic white frieze of the old Yankee Stadium, one of those buildings that seem as if built to last forever. And for me it had been up to that point so continuously a place of defeat as to suggest something to outlast any building, and it was still a little over a month away from delivering its worst moment yet, when Aaron Boone would drive a ball toward the stands the young man in this card is pointing to, as if a figure of subtle prophecy in a religious painting, with his left index finger.

A little higher, just over his right shoulder, you might just barely be able to make out the two teams listed at the top of the out-of-town scores: “CHI” is facing off against “MIL.” The number of the starting pitcher for MIL is difficult to see, but it seems to end in a zero. The starting pitcher for CHI is clearer: 22.

On September 6, 2003, Mark Prior, wearing number 22, beat Matt Kinney (number 50 for MIL) to bring his record to 15 and 5 for the year. Most guys scrape their way into the majors like the player on this card, and you figure they’ll kick around for a little while and disappear, but then there’s the rare phenom like Mark Prior, who looked to be one of those guys who would be around forever.

***

Mark Prior’s fifteenth win occurred a few miles north of where I was on September 6, 2003. It featured the return to Milwaukee of Randall Simon, who in his last visit had clubbed a woman in a sausage suit. Life seemed somewhat ridiculous around then. I was five days away from spending the second anniversary of 9/11 driving an hour and a half from Racine, Wisconsin, to the suburbs of Chicago to start a job as a part-time freelance proofreader. My girlfriend and I had moved from New York City to her parents’ house in Racine a few months earlier, and had been looking for work in Chicago. I was the first one to get a bite.

Everything about the job felt temporary. I sat in a cube with no nameplate on it. I worked a day here, a day there. A week or so in I heard someone taking a new employee around from cube to cube to introduce her to the people in the cubes. They neared my cube and then passed it by, as if passing an emptiness. At lunch I’d leave the building and go sit by a manmade pond and watch some ducks and wonder what I was doing in this place where I knew no one and no one knew me.

***

“What if I could walk on air?” my son Jack said the other day.

I was walking with him and his younger brother, Exley, to the playground down the street. Here’s how I came to be walking down the street with two sons: I stuck with the proofreading job, moved with my girlfriend to Chicago, Bronson Arroyo drilled A-Rod during a game in July, a brawl ensued, the Red Sox caught fire, Bronson Arroyo got bombarded in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, but then he helped keep the Red Sox alive in Game 5 with a perfect tenth inning of relief against three Hall of Fame caliber hitters, Jeter, A-Rod, and Sheffield, and then the following game he survived another tense inning of relief that included those same sluggers and the fiasco of A-Rod slapping a ball out of his hand. Arroyo was always somehow right in the middle of the sublime and ridiculous way in which that team, the 2004 Red Sox, changed my life, or if not my life at least my wall. Basically, I put a picture up on the wall. I married my girlfriend. The two boys came along. We go to playgrounds and talk about miracles.

“Walking on air would be great,” I replied to Jack.

When I was a kid I had dreams of walking up into the air, dreams that felt absolutely real. I’d wake up in the morning, and for a few moments I would let the brief absence of doubt, the very weight of life in the world, linger. I’d be up in the air, in a loft bed, and among the first things I would see would be my poster of David “Skywalker” Thompson, the Denver Nuggets star, seeming to have found an invisible shelf four feet above the ground. I was waking up to a life of doubt, but I believed in levitation, not in the sense of a scientist believing in empirical facts. I mean I believed the way someone does when they need to believe.

Something about the line of thinking, going in an instant from being here with my two boys to being a boy myself dreaming of walking on air like David Thompson, to being back with my boys: it brought some magic into the moment. Or more accurately it revealed the magic that’s always there. Even the earth below our feet is transient. We’re already levitating.

***

04 sox

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Bob Bailey

March 3, 2017

bob-bailey

I hate, among other things, and in no particular order

  • Bucky Dent
  • fascism
  • football
  • America (the band, not the country, which I love and hate)
  • saying the word “poop” (the way you have to pop your lips at the beginning and the end of the nauseatingly cutesy sound; you wouldn’t think it would come up much, but with young children you’re always having to converse about the subject)
  • having a job
  • not having a job
  • the song “Life in the Fast Lane”
  • fruit (yes, all fruit; this is probably a subject needing expansion at some other time)
  • the practice in Chicago of “dibs” (when it snows more than half an inch people murder the idea of society by hauling out deck chairs to claim a public parking space for after they drive away)
  • baseball cards that show only the most recent five seasons of a player’s career

I could go on, but let’s instead talk about the last item, which reared its hideous head the other day. I was looking with my son at some 2017 Topps cards, the first I’d seen of the new season of cards. I noticed that the numbers on the back of Rick Porcello’s card literally didn’t add up. I checked another card, for Adam Wainright, and determined pretty quickly that his lifetime win total was far beyond the sum of the individual seasons shown. With this confirmation, my blood began to boil. I couldn’t believe that the worst thing I’d ever seen in baseball cards—the presentation by Fleer [ed. note: actually Donruss] in the mid-1980s of “recent major league records”—was being duplicated by Topps.

Oh how I hate those Fleer [ed. note: what can be said to be reliable with this clown’s writing if he can’t even tell Donruss from Fleer?] cards. I’ve got a few of them, and every time I make the mistake anew of looking on the back of them it’s like seeing some vision of the heart of life itself being amputated. And so when I saw it on the new cards by the company that to my certainly less than comprehensive knowledge has never made this hideous mistake before, I became enraged. You may think this is an insane notion on my part. I mean, who cares? But for me baseball cards are and have always been a way toward some completion, a way to search for stories in the numbers, to see and dream of a beginning and a middle and—though there is no end on any card, for every player in theory could have another card the next year—the intimation of an end. Truncating the span of seasons so that the beginning or even the beginning and middle drops out: it kills the card. Kills it.

Maybe another way to explain what I mean is this:

You complete me, Bob Bailey.

It was this way in 1978, when I got this card, and it’s still this way. I’ve always been incomplete and always will be incomplete. When I was ten years old, I couldn’t put any words to what this incompleteness compelled me toward, but surely, Bob Bailey, when I found you in a pack I was drawn in by the color and the familiarity, a player on my favorite team, always the best find in any pack, and also drawn by the jarring unreality of the doctored helmet and uniform, the hardened, sardonic face, the cartoonishly alliterative name, but while the front of the card made the first contact with the wanting incompleteness that was my self, the back of the card was what drew me in.

Bob Bailey was a veteran, and so the most important word on the back of his card—the word “COMPLETE” in “COMPLETE MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD”—allowed for an impressive sprawl of numbers stretching far back before I was born, all the way to 1962, before my mother had even met my father. That year Bob Bailey, age 19, managed just 7 hits in 42 at bats for an average of .167. Bookending that first line on the card was the last line, his season statistics for the 1977 Red Sox, and these numbers were even more anemic, the closest you could get to nothing without being nothing: 2 at bats, 0 hits. In between the intimations of the nothingness from which we come and into which we go, there was an estimable swell of competence, if not excellence, Bob Bailey logging many years with solid numbers. He was never a superstar but was a regular in the major leagues, and a good one. What more could you ask for? What better story could there be than rising from nothing to that?

If this card came out in 2017 it would leave out the beginning and middle. You’d only have the end. As for his actual end, it came the following season. He had his last at-bat, as a pinch-hitter, in the one game playoff against the Yankees, the first batter Goose Gossage faced. He hadn’t had a hit in weeks, and he was facing mustachioed death incarnate. He struck out looking. He had no chance. A thought occurred to me that day and it’s never really left: I’ll never be complete. I’ll always need to imagine completeness. I’ll never be complete.

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Bill Lee

December 2, 2016

bill-lee-75

“Baseball will survive . . . everything because the game is played by kids.” – Bill Lee

I want to be Bill Lee when I grow up. Or maybe I’m already on the wrong track with this line of thinking, this notion that as time goes on we grow up, or should aspire to grow up, or even that there is any inherent hierarchical structuring, any fixed orientation of up and down, to our brief partial awakening here on Earth. We can grow up, we can grow down, we can grow sideways. We grow old, if we’re lucky, but if we’re even luckier we grow young too. Just ask Bill Lee. He just keeps growing.

***

This year, at age 69—as with all ages he’s known since he was no older than my younger son, who’s 2—Bill Lee played baseball. Pitching for the Burlington Cardinals of the Vermont Senior League, he logged the eighth best ERA in a league made up of lifelong hardball players twenty and thirty years younger than him. He wasn’t just appearing in games as a stunt either: no one with a better ERA had more innings pitched. After finishing third in the league in wins, with 9, he went all 11 innings in his team’s quarterfinal 2-1 victory and won the semifinal with a complete game 3-1 victory. The championship game went into extra innings. You can probably guess who pitched them all. Courtesy of the Vermont Senior League site, here’s the box score:

champ-game It’s not what’s generally understood to be a masterpiece. It’s a mess! The pitcher shown in his 1975 card at the top of this page, young and handsome and riding a crest of excellence that would see him win 17 games three seasons in a row, not far away from pitching in the seventh game of the World Series, seems to have been knocked around a good deal on this day by some middle-aged north country amateurs: 14 hits allowed, 8 runs allowed, 4 of them earned. But maybe the real masterpieces are messy, failure and success interweaving. Bill Lee wasn’t anyone’s idea of perfection that day, but he did go 2 for 4 at the plate, and on the mound he walked just one player, and then there’s that most old-fashioned and now maligned of pitching stats, connoted by the letter I still see hanging from windows and porches here in Chicago, tangled in with the Christmas decorations: the W. Yes, failure is always going to be part of any life, but on this day Bill Lee—white-haired 69-year-old Bill Lee—went 12 fucking innings and won.

***

Bill Lee also lost this year, garnering just 2.8% of the vote in his run for governor of Vermont. (He’s run for office once before, in 1988, when he vied unsuccessfully for the presidency on a platform that included a vow to repeal the law of gravity.) After his loss this November, he was asked by a Canadian journalist whether he’d now make good on a desire he’d voiced earlier in the year to move to Vancouver Island. The question was less about Lee’s personal election experience than it was about the impending presidency of Donald Trump, who Lee had recently characterized thusly: “He’s an anal-retentive white homophobe with short arms, deep pockets, and he’s made his living screwing the American public by stealing their money through bankruptcy. The guy’s a crook. Should be in jail. I can’t believe there’s that many stupid people in America that would even consider voting for him.”

“Oh my god, I’d come there in a heartbeat,” Lee told the Times-Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia. It’s not an empty notion—Lee’s married to a Canadian woman (“I always marry Canadians as an exit strategy”). But he sees that now is the time to stand your ground.

“I’d come there,” Lee said, “if I didn’t think I was running away from a problem.”

***

In the 1975 card at the top of this page, Bill Lee signs just his name, but nowadays Bill Lee signs his autographs, “Bill Lee, Earth.” This suggests that he, as his nickname Spaceman suggests, has travelled to other worlds. This is just one of them. This also suggests that he’s a citizen of Earth, the whole world, all its people, all its living beings, all its grasses and trees and seas and mountains. It also seems to me an affirmation of life. Here I am on Earth. I won’t always be here, at least not in this particular body. But I’m goddamn here right now.

***

The 1975 card at the top of this page reminds me of a moment from this past weekend. I managed to capture it in the video below. I was in Asheville, North Carolina, where my mom and dad and brother and his family now live. My mom and dad live right next to a baseball field that’s bordered by a hill similar to the hill shown behind the young Red Sox southpaw in his 1975 card. The video catches my younger son, Exley, imitating my imitation of a pitcher and throwing an imaginary baseball to my older son, Jack, who swings and (you can hear this if you listen closely) makes a faint clicking sound with his tongue and the roof of his mouth, a sound effect for connection. Some running ensues, rules and baselines only faintly suggested, and then both boys hustle back to their points of origin. The video ends as it starts, with Exley bringing his hands together to the set position, just like Bill Lee is doing in his 1975 card, just like Bill Lee did before recording the last out of a championship game earlier this year. When I watch my boys, and when I think about Bill Lee, the same beautiful hope arises: no matter what, the game will go on.

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Dustin Pedroia

October 11, 2016

dustin-pedroia-2012Jack was holding his bat in one hand and looking toward one of the corners of our carpeted basement. I stood a few feet away, ready to start lobbing him underhand pitches. Jack usually can’t wait to start rocketing line drives all over the room.

“Laser Show!” he says sometimes as the line drives are flying. Jack has his own little shoebox full of cards now. This 2012 card of the original Laser Show is the first card Jack wanted as his own, the beginning of his collection.

It turns out Dustin Pedroia was on his mind yesterday as he gazed into the corner. I could tell a question was forming. Jack asks a lot of questions. He asks about animals, planets, food, numbers, himself, me, his mother, his brother, injuries, death, measurements, baseball, the meaning of words, the meaning of the world. He asks, nearly as constantly as he breathes, why.

Why? Why not? Why? Why not?

I never know, not really.

I looked down at the foam Boston Red Sox softball in my hands. The ball had some chunks taken out of it, courtesy of Jack’s younger brother, Exley. Jack turned to me.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Is Dustin Pedroia afraid of spiders?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. Lately I’d been wondering about all of Jack’s questions and my inability to answer them. I needed to start reaching beyond my limited knowledge somehow. “Maybe we can write him a letter and ask him.”

Later that day, Jack asked, “What does Dustin Pedroia like better? Dustin? Pedroia? Or Laser Show?”

I took my best guess on that one, and Jack started pressing the tip of a red magic marker to a piece of paper. He writes big letters and when he runs out of space on a line he just goes to the next line.

LASE
RSHO
W

This was all that was going to fit on this page. I’d suggested Jack write “Dear Laser Show,” but Jack, already averse to sentiment except in relation to his mother, told me he wasn’t going to write “Dear.” On the other side he drew a baseball player. He started drawing baseball players a while ago, at no one’s prompting. One day I came home from work and he gave a picture to me. He’d never given me a picture before. He’d given my wife all sorts of pictures of hearts and rainbows and the like.

“That’s Mookie Betts,” Jack said that day. It made me want to cry.

“This one looks more like an alien,” he said now. There wasn’t much room left on the page, certainly not enough for more of Jack’s big letters, so I asked Jack to dictate to me the question we were asking. I wrote it down to the right of the alien:

Are you afraid of spiders?

Jack then drew a tarantula at the alien’s feet as I Googled Dustin Pedroia’s address. I came up with something in Arizona. When I was a kid, I’d written to Carl Yastrzemski in care of the Red Sox and had never heard back, so I figured it was worth trying a different approach and wrote the Arizona address on an envelope. Jack put on the stamp.

It had occurred to me not long after Jack asked it that his question had an ironic twist to it, in that Dustin Pedroia was later that night facing elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, a franchise that began in 1901, two years after the disbandment of the city’s previous major league team, the Cleveland Spiders, who were also sometimes known as the Indians because of the presence on the team of a member of the Penobscot tribe, Louis Sockalexis.

This was all happening on Columbus Day, of course, so I had the day off. Jack didn’t ask why I had the day off, as he sometimes does on holidays, but when he does someday I will tell him what I know about Columbus, most of my knowledge coming from the Bugs Bunny offering “Hare We Go.” I’ll probably also tell him that not everybody is such a big fan of Columbus or of there being a day to celebrate him.

Why not?

Well, I’ll say, there were other people living here first before Columbus came from across the ocean, and he said the following of them (and acted upon this sentiment, in both word and deed symbolically if not actually setting in motion the annihilation of the native inhabitants of this continent):

“With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

What does subjugate mean?

I’ll tell him what subjugate means, which will prompt more questions, and on and on we’ll go, eventually, the whole bloody mess of his world slowly, clumsily rising into view. How does anyone ever even get out of bed? Forget spiders: human history is made up of one long unbroken log of horrific subjugation. Jack already has some inclination of this, thanks to the U-Boat on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Every few days he asks why “the mean guy from the U-Boat” (we go with this construction without clarifying things for him because neither my wife nor I want to hear the name Hitler spilling out of Jack’s mouth on a daily basis) tried to take over everything, and how he forced people to do what he wanted, and if we’re glad he’s dead.

But Jack didn’t ask about any of this yesterday. It turns out he had a fever. The night before, tossing and turning with a sore throat, he had a nightmare about “No Noggin,” a figure from a Curious George Halloween cartoon.

“No Noggin was tearing me to pieces,” Jack said as we were sitting on the couch. It was nighttime, after he’s usually asleep, but he’d dropped into a nap earlier in the day because of the fever, so he was wide awake now. I had an earbud in my ear, listening to the Red Sox game as they tried to stave off elimination at the hands of the Indians.

I’d started following baseball when I was just a little older than Jack and not that long after I began having night terrors. Nothing has ever been scarier to me than those night terrors, which are beyond nightmares. When Jack is frightened in the middle of the night I want to protect him from crossing over from seeing scary images inside his head to seeing the whole real world looking infinitely wrong, which is how it was for me with the night terrors. For me, baseball was something to hold onto in the face of that terrifying chaos.

“Mommy and Daddy are here for you,” I said. “Also, No Noggin isn’t real.”

Neither of these statements had any impact. They felt flimsy coming out of my mouth. What can you do to help someone who is scared? Well, there’s always baseball.

“Dustin Pedroia is coming up,” I told Jack.

I took the earbuds out of my phone and we listened together to his ninth-inning at-bat. If he made an out, the season would be over. He battled his way on base with a walk, which pushed the tying run to second base. Jack has asked enough questions about baseball to know that this is a good thing. The inning and the season and Big Papi’s career ended shortly thereafter. I turned off the radio and recapped these events. Jack had more questions.

“Why is he called ‘Big Papi’?”

“Papi is Spanish for Daddy,” I said.

“Why is he Daddy?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, hesitating because any answer would seem like I was glorifying the idea of a father. What is a daddy anyway? There’s no end to these questions.

“Well, he’s there for the whole team. He’s someone they could count on.” Just like when I got the Mookie Betts magic marker portrait, I felt like I was going to cry. As for Jack, he was in fine spirits, despite the fever. Dustin Pedroia had done something good!

“Dustin Pedroia scored a walk, right?” he asked. I nodded. Jack raised his arms and cheered.

Jack’s letter to his favorite player, with its scrawled lettering and oblong alien portraiture and tarantula and single, ominous-sounding question, is now on its way to what may or may not be Dustin Pedroia’s address. I can’t imagine the letter getting a reply. I told Jack I never heard back from Carl Yastrzemski. What exactly was I trying to say?

Son, you will be disappointed by life.

“But if he doesn’t write back we won’t know if he’s afraid of spiders,” Jack said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Do you think he’s afraid of spiders?”

“No,” Jack said. I then took a turn with one of his favorites:

“Why not?”

“He’s brave.”

“I’m brave,” my spider-fearing wife pointed out from across the room.

“Yeah, Mommy’s brave,” I agreed. Watching someone give birth to a child gives you some perspective on the concept of bravery. At some point earlier in the day Jack had asked who the first person to ever see him was. I was the first person to see him. Maybe a doctor or nurse spotted some wet protrusion of his head before I did, but I was the first to see him completely, with joy and terror, with love.

With questions.

Who knows the answer, or even if an answer will ever come?

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” I said.

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Last Hurrahs

October 4, 2016

20160930_203117

How do things end? This is still in question for David Ortiz, who is set to get at least a few more at-bats in the playoffs. His final regular season at-bat is now a matter of historical record, at least, a meek squibber up the first-base line, for Big Papi a rare intimation of baseball mortality in a season that may stand as the best final season in baseball history. So that’s how it ended for him, a little ground ball, a roaring ovation.

I already compared that last at-bat with the most memorable final at-bat of my life, Yaz’s final turn, but what I left out of the memory of Yaz was his final moments on the field, after the at-bat, when he took a lap around Fenway, touching as many hands as he could. I cried when he did that. I’ve talked about Yaz’s final day before—why do I leave that part out? No ending will ever top that for me, no matter what happens with Big Papi in the playoffs.

How does it end for the rest of us? At some point it’ll end for me and the box of cards shown above that contains my childhood, at least in my eyes, will become someone else’s possession, devoid of the memories, cardboard without the gods.

This is may or may not be relevant, but yesterday, thinking about all my Octobers and about October itself, the favorite month of Jack Kerouac, I wondered whether Jack Kerouac watched the 1969 World Series, the crowning moment of the Miracle Mets. He was a couple of weeks away from dying at the age of 47. I’m a year older than he ever got, and yet still his unwanted dufus apprentice! He ended in Florida living with his wife and mother and drinking a lot and watching TV. He had a terrible liver from all the drinking and an untreated hernia and had gotten beaten up in a bar fight a few days earlier and had a head stuffed no longer with visions but rather with angered ranting, about communists, hippies, Jews. According to a recent Boston Globe article by James Sullivan about Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, Kerouac had $91 to his name at the end. So that’s kind of how his last at-bat went, and maybe why I want to imagine him marveling at the Mets in his last October.

Most final at-bats don’t come in October. This has to be true because most games occur before that time, but it’s also supported by some research on my part, if this type of thing can be called research. I don’t so much research things as look for ways to escape the inevitable. This latest attempt was built around the conceit of last at-bats for Red Sox standouts at every position who actually had their last at-bats as a member of the team. I had to leave out many players who drifted away from the team at the end and had to be lenient with some position assignments (e.g., Williams shifting over to right, where he played for a while as a youngster).

Anyway, the list:

  • Catcher: Jason Varitek singled in the go-ahead run in a late September win against the Yankees as the Red Sox attempted (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to stave off the worst final-month collapse in baseball history.
  • 1B: Yaz popped out to second base in October.
  • 2B: Bobby Doerr grounded out to short in early September. In the following inning, Doerr, who had been suffering from a bad back, was taken out of the game after completing the pivot in a 6-4-3 double play. This might be, all things considered, the second best final moment noted here, next to only the one below that was immortalized by John Updike: the second-baseman who died with his boots on, or rather his cleats high.
  • SS: Speaking of injuries, Joe Cronin reached on an error by the opposing second baseman in April. He broke his leg on the following play and had to be removed (by himself—he was the player/manager) for a pinch-runner.
  • 3B: Rico Petrocelli drew a walk in a September loss.
  • LF: Jim Rice flied out to deep right-center field in an August loss. He was replaced before his next at-bat by Randy Kutcher. Randy Kutcher? I can’t find out why this happened, but Rice’s last years were injury-riddled. He may have tweaked something and then never made it back.
  • CF: Dom Dimaggio popped out in a May loss.
  • RF: Ted Williams homered in September (attendance: 10,454).
  • DH: David Ortiz grounded out, in October, 2-3 if you’re scoring from home, like a failed attempt to reach base by a bunt.

Only Yaz, Ortiz, and Williams had moments of knowing goodbye. Everybody else was like the rest of us, never really knowing when it will be over, or when it already is.

 

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David Ortiz

October 3, 2016

david-ortiz

I remember watching Yaz’s last regular-season at-bat. The Red Sox were bad that year, most of the superstars from my childhood gone. There weren’t going to be any postseason at-bats. I watched the game alone in a TV room at a boarding school that I’d be expelled from the following year. I’d started attending the boarding school a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t had any particular desire to go to the school but had gone because my brother had gone there before me, and I was in the habit of doing what he did. Also, to send me to the school, my mother was willing to go into debt that would take years to go away. Probably she was concerned that I’d gone from a bubbly little boy who loved learning to a sullen teenager accruing shitty report cards.

Things can change. You can be a boy running on superstar feet up the road to get to school like he’s sprinting up the first-base line, and then all the superstars can leave. In Yaz’s last at bat I wanted Yaz to hit the ball five hundred feet, a thousand feet, so far it would never be seen again, the stories about it going on forever. He popped out to the infield. The game ended. It was Sunday, still the afternoon but getting dark already. I had trigonometry homework to do. Thirty-three years later, it’s still undone.

***

Things can change.

David Ortiz said those words twelve Octobers ago. I was thirty-six and a few months into a new life in a new city. The Red Sox were losing to the Yankees. They’d lost to the Yankees the year before, as painful a loss as any of them, and that’s saying something. The Red Sox had always been losing to the Yankees. I knew from experience that things can change in one direction, but I didn’t really believe they could change in the other direction.

Still, I watched the games, every one of them, every inning, even the last innings of the savage beating that put the Red Sox in a 3-0 hole. The next game went late into the night, as everyone knows. I watched the last innings of that one alone, my girlfriend, Abby, asleep in the next room. We’d moved to Chicago to take a stab at a life together. This is a scary step to take, especially if you’re in the habit of believing that things can change, but only for the worse.

So when David Ortiz hit that home run, a feeling coursed through me that was just about as powerful as anything I’d ever felt. The Red Sox were still down three games to one, and I was still the same person weighted down by reams of gray trigonometry homework of one shape or another, everything so far squandered, undone. But still: there was life. I ran around my apartment on superstar feet.

We’re alive, I said. I didn’t say it out loud because Abby, who I was in love with, who was becoming my life, was asleep and had to get up early to go to her job at a group home for wards of the state. I said it with every fiber of my body, believing it, thinking about everyone I knew and loved as David Ortiz disappeared into a scrum of ecstatic bodies at home plate.

We’re alive.

***

Yesterday, I watched David Ortiz’s last regular season at-bat in a scrum of my two young boys, Jack and Exley. We were sitting on the floor in our carpeted basement, and I had a tiny version of the game on my phone. My wife, Abby, was at the grocery store.

“When is Big Papi going to bat?” Jack asked. He’s the five-year-old.

“Whack!” said Exley, Jack’s little brother, two. This is his word for baseball.

“He’ll be up soon,” I said.

“Is Dustin Pedroia going to bat?” Jack said.

“Well, he batted last inning, so he prob—whoa!”

I can’t remember which of the boys went flying at that point. Do you have an image in your mind of Andre the Giant when he wrestled a couple of guys at once? This is analogous to the standard mode of behavior for the three of us, especially when we’re on the carpet. Two smaller people hurling themselves at the bigger person. Bodies are always sailing through the air. Forget any semblance of coherence to a conversation.

“Why does space go on and on and on?” Jack asked when the flurry of flying tackles and somersaults next hit something like a pause.

“OK, I’m watching this,” I said, because David Ortiz was coming to bat for the last time. I stood up and showed Jack the phone, but he was now more interested in trying to shove a large beach ball up under his shirt. Exley wanted to do the same because he’s already in the habit of doing whatever his older brother does, but he had previously taken off his shirt, so he began whining for his shirt in the manner in which he generally makes demands of the world.

“Me,” he said. “Me!”

“Does it go to infinity?” Jack asked.

“What?” I said. “Yeah infinity Exley Exley Exley your shirt is upstairs hold on.”

Me!

“I don’t want it to go to infinity,” Jack said, his voice also leaning toward tears.

“Just hold on a sec,” I said, the words I say these days more than any others. I was already being pulled back to my life, and in a moment I’d be running up the stairs to get a shirt so Exley could shove a ball under it while also telling Jack that I didn’t like infinity either, infinity sucked, I’d be saying, and there would be tears anyway and then more wrestling and laughing and bang someone’s head knocking into a wall and more tears and on and on, things always changing, changing, the very pulse of life, onward, always onward, but out of the corner of my eye before life surged ahead I saw on a tiny screen David Ortiz hit the ball maybe twenty feet, surely one of the shortest journeys into fair territory of any ball off his bat, I saw this with the eyes of this life I’ve been blessed with, my we’re alive eyes, my eyes of gratitude and love, saw it as if it were the first batted ball of a boy just starting out, everything still in front of him, and this boy will race toward first on superstar feet.

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Dick Pole

October 7, 2015

Dick Pole@midnightWhen I was a little boy living from pack to pack in rural Vermont in the 1970s, I knew my dream would one day come true of having a card from my collection serve as the backdrop for a riff session by three very funny people on a late-night cable television show. The Dick Pole stuff starts at around the sixteen-minute mark here. Particularly gratifying is that the Sklar brothers, arguably the funniest sports-obsessed comedians in the world (and the creators of the hilarious, sadly defunct baseball-card sitcom “Back on Topps”), are leading the Pole-stroking session. (Thanks to Bo Rosny for the lookout on this.)

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reasons

October 31, 2013

we wonI intended for this photo to be right side up in this fucking post. I also intended before starting to write the post to Google the words “Sweet Jane” but I hadn’t slept much and was up early and had just named a document, the document used to create these words, “Reasons,” short for “Reasons to Live” or “Reasons not to Bail,” so instead of “Sweet Jane” I typed in “reasons” and the search window suggested these four phrases, apparently the top searches that start with the word reasons:

reasons my son is crying
reasons for missed period
reasons for divorce
reasons why I love you

I’m able to find the first one amusing only because at the moment my son is asleep and so is not crying. He has been around for a little over two years and he cries a lot, often for reasons I can’t understand and he can’t explain. This ongoing situation, my inability to help or even understand my own son when he’s suffering, calls to mind a line in Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson:

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

There’s a certain undefeatable core of estrangement in this life. You can feel it as the agitation behind each of the top four internet searches for reasons. How can I understand this person who came from me? How can I deal with a new needful life on the way? How can I understand a love that seems to be crumbling? How can I understand love at all?

How can we ever be anything but alone? I’m thinking of a line from a song, but not the one I set out to search for this morning: “I hate the quiet places/that cause the smallest taste of what will be.” That’s a line from “Candy Says,” by Lou Reed, who also supplied the lyrics to the song I wanted to search for today and also the song that provided the epigraph and title for Jesus’ Son. He passed away earlier this week, right when the Red Sox were in the middle of battling toward a win in the World Series, and so his songs of quiet places and loss and perversion, of life turned upside down and inside out, have been hovering eerily all around the loud bearded stomp toward triumph.

His songs make me happy. It’s hard to explain why. Easier to understand winning. The win by the Red Sox made me happy. My son was awake and naked, and when he saw the players jumping around on one another after the last out, he wanted to do it, too, so the two of us did a two-man version of the jumping up and down victory scrum. His nudity reminded me of a short, barrel-chested guy I met with my friend Pete while we were at a New York Rangers game way back in the early 1990s. It was between periods. This was before the Rangers had broken through to win the Stanley Cup in 1994, so the team was the longest suffering NHL squad.

“What will you do if the Rangers finally win?” Pete asked him. He considered it for a moment, or maybe he had the answer already set in his mind. I can’t remember anymore.

“Run naked and put up a sign,” he said.

You want to return to the days when you could run naked, I guess. You want to win, to feel all the limitations that have been piling up on you your whole life long to vanish in the winning.

And they do, they really do, for a second. The photo at the top of this page hangs over my desk (right side up). I sit at my desk every morning and write. What are my reasons? I am trying to hold on to something. I am trying to run naked. I am trying to put up a sign. Anyway, the picture hangs over my desk as a happy reminder, a reminder of happiness, and of connection. It was taken in Boston the day the Red Sox celebrated their 2004 World Series title with a duckboat parade. My brother had decked out his car as “the Yazmobile.” He came from Brooklyn and I came from Chicago. We’d been waiting for that parade our whole life.

Life in general is not in synch with such moments of connection and celebration.

“Some people like us we gotta work,” is how Lou Reed puts it in the song I still have yet to Google. Why did I want to Google “Sweet Jane”? Do I really think I’ll find the answer to why the song, from its first chord, always flicks some switch in my head that turns life from work to something else entirely?

I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. This last fucking paragraph is what my work is, more or less. Do you notice that it is in a different fucking font? I don’t know why it pasted this way into wordpress from my Word document. There doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent fix. I could spend a long time figuring it out, but I have to go to work and figure similar things out, one after the other, little stupid fucking problems that are beyond me. Like the upside down photo at the top of the page. I took it right side up, and sent it from my phone to my email right side up, and when it appeared on my computer upside down I used a program to rotate it back right side up, but then when I uploaded it to this post it was upside down again. I do not understand all the many tiny ways things go wrong and I am lashed to them every goddamn day. I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. No running naked. Unless you count these words written in a hurry beneath a photo of connection and joy, a photo I can’t seem to control. I can’t believe the win I always wished for happened once, and then again, and now three times. I’m happy about it and so not to be trusted. So trust someone who somehow imbued the lines “feel sick and dirty/more dead than alive” with an attachment to suffering life so stubborn as to be a kind of perverse, swinging joy. Trust Lou Reed, transformer of loss, when he sneers at anyone who says life is just to die.

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Add to Dictionary

October 20, 2013

rejubilation