When 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.)
Archive for the ‘Boston Red Sox’ Category
I 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.
I spent some time recently writing an essay on Luis Tiant for a forthcoming compilation. It was impossible. I always feel like I fail whenever I try to write about something I really love. There is too much to say, so whatever ends up getting onto the page feels like a reduction, a diminishment, a mistake.
I have to balance my writing—well, balance is the wrong word. I have to jam my writing life into the rest of my life, going to and from work, working at a job where I am responsible for locating and correcting mistakes, looking after my baby, a wobbly lurching being who makes me want to maim myself when I make a mistake and allow him to fall down and bang his head. I try to allow the writing to be the one place where mistakes are okay. That is why I’m writing right now, beyond the end of my work on the Luis Tiant essay. By the way, I just misspelled Tiant and went back and corrected it, so I’m full of shit on my open invitation for mistakes and some kind of unreachable freedom. The way I keep misspelling Tiant is Taint, which is kind of funny. Taint is kind of like a mistake, meaning a flaw in something. Also it means the part between your asshole and your genitals, which I learned, perhaps erroneously, derives from the idea that it “t’aint one thing and t’aint the other.” My life is spent in the taint, not quite here and not quite there but definitely somewhere sort of malodorous and dank.
Now, what was I trying to say? Oh yeah, love and impossible words. Tiant: I will never say everything I want to about him, but I did want to point out that this button contains a taint, not just the badly centered name and team box near the bottom but, of course, the misspelling of the team name: “Red Soxs.” How the fuck did this occur? It makes me wonder who pumped out these buttons.
The photo is from just a little before the dawn of my fandom, as I only remember Luis Tiant when he had his fu manchu. He was the first to sport the fu Manchu, wasn’t he? He doesn’t get enough credit for this.
I remember going to Fenway Park as a kid. He ruled that place, in some ways even more than Yaz. I’ve written about Yaz, and about seeing the green of Fenway Park for the first time. I never have gotten it all down in words though. For example, I was in bliss even walking to the park. There would be souvenir stands selling shit like this, painters caps and pennants and buttons with the faces of players on them. Everything was shining in the lights. This was to me as a verdant heath was to Wordsworth or something. But I can’t tell you about it. I mean I can’t find the right words. I can only make one mistake after another.
That was one of my failed plans for the Tiant essay I just finished, that it would be organized around the Zen notion of shoshaku joshaku, first coined by Japanese master Dogen and brought to my attention years ago in the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The phrase means “one continuous mistake.” I wanted to describe Luis Tiant’s unorthodox and unforgettable pitching delivery in those terms, everything about it wrong but somehow beautiful and more than that somehow, hitches and pauses and twitches and all, continuous, and his career, too, with his exile and his injuries and his releases and his comebacks, one continuous motion, too, Tiant untainted by surrendering to the life of one continuous mistake, the mistakes not the point of this all but rather the will to continue. This was the point of these words, and all my words, and all my mistakes: continue.
(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
The Other Day
The other day, I came to. I looked around, blinking. I was in a supermarket. This kind of thing is happening more. How did I get here? Where have I been? I used to assume my life was an unbroken chronological line through time, as if a baseball card with my likeness could list every one of my seasons and where I was and how I did. It’s possible this line was never more than a powerful fiction, and even if it ever did exist it doesn’t anymore. Moments flash in and out, past, present, jumbled, strewn. Everything is the other day. It may have gone this way anyway, but the arrival a few months ago of my son accelerated the scrambling of the back of my card. I make lists now to try to keep my shit together. This is how I came to in the supermarket. I was reaching into the pocket of my windbreaker for a list to see why I had ended up in the supermarket. I pulled out a toy, a little jingly giraffe. I checked the other pocket and pulled out a baseball card.
When I was a kid I believed, above all, in a line through time, along which losing could change to winning. The idea of winning, winning it all, was distant, millennial, all-encompassing, all-powerful. Just thinking about it was enough to bring tears of joy. The team I loved came tantalizingly close to winning, year after year, but in the end always lost, undone by the limited abilities of the pitching staff. I spent a lot of time staring at the cards of the superstar sluggers on the team I loved—Yaz, Rice, Fisk—but my waiting and hoping for change centered not on the cards but on a perusal of names of pitchers next to small black-and-white pictures in the back of the team yearbook, the names of those not yet arrived, not yet failed. The prospects. I was drawn to those names. I studied them hoping to find the thing lacking, the True Ace. Things were one way, but I wanted to believe things could change.
The other day, a coworker (and fellow blogger) stopped by my cubicle to show me a stack of 1980s commons he’d found for next to nothing at a tag sale. He leaned on the corner of the pasteboard entryway to my cubicle as I flipped through the stack, the two of us mocking the mulleted, the bespectacled, the hapless, the fat. I don’t remember how the moment ended. All but one of the cards remains on my desk, cluttering up my jumble of project schedules and calendars and daily to-do lists. I try to keep myself fastened to a line through time. I lose that grip. I lose beginnings and endings. I come to in supermarkets, one hand holding a toy, the other holding Win Remmerswaal.
Win Remmerswaal was the most memorable of the young pitchers who existed solely as names in the back of the team yearbooks I read as a child. I never saw him pitch and don’t remember noticing him registering in a box score. He appeared in only 22 major league games. But I do remember the name. The first name could not be simpler, a distillation of everything life was supposed to be aiming toward, clean and clear as an ideal: Win. The second name meandered, complex, unpronounceable but impossible to resist trying to pronounce; it beckoned, a magic spell if said correctly, everything about it a tangle of knowable and unknowable, remembering and swaying and wailing and All, the opposite of an ideal, the dream-drunk wooze of real: Remmerswaal. Who was he? Where was he? When would he arrive to bring change?
The other day, I was watching TV for a few minutes. I used to watch TV for hours, cooking my many daily anxieties to a jittery crisp, but then the baby came. There’s always something to do now, up until a few minutes before nightly, ragged unconsciousness sets in, and in those few minutes I generally watch TV for old time’s sake. An ad for a casino came on. The gist was that for some, second place was okay, but for this casino only first place was acceptable. I didn’t want to waste my few minutes of TV watching a commercial, so I flipped around a little. There was a game show featuring people with weight problems trying to defeat other people with weight problems. I kept flipping. There was another game show featuring women in evening gowns trying to defeat other women in evening gowns. I went back to the first channel, but the casino ad was still wrapping up, hammering home the point that second place is no place at all. Images of glamorous people floating toward slot machines and gaming tables scrolled. I’ve been to a few casinos over the course of my life—they are devoid of glamour, cathedrals of loss. But they’re crowded night and day. Everyone believes flaws and limitations can be shed, change can occur. You will be lifted up out of yourself to some idealized version of you, free of your pocked humanity. Everyone wants to win.
The back of Win Remmerswaal’s 1981 card shows his stats in 22 games, the entirety of the pitcher’s brief major league career, along with all but one last gasp of his minor league career. The litany of names down the left column of his table of stats lends apt accompaniment to the dim, featureless moment on the front. Winter Haven, Winter Haven, Bristol, Bristol, Pawtucket, Pawtucket, Pawtucket. Red Sox. Pawtucket. Red Sox. And so here he is, representing the last line in the chant of his faltering ascension, Giacometti thin, a presence in the big leagues but only for a moment. Soon he’ll dissolve back into the blur.
The other day, I sat my son down on a Fenway Park bedspread on the floor and handed him some toys. He was at that moment in a phase of notable stability, able to sit up on his own but not yet able to crawl. After a few moments I edged away to check one of my baseball books for Win Remmerswaal stories. There wasn’t much about him in the big book I pulled from the shelf, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, so I started leafing through the book aimlessly, or maybe you could say playfully, no real goal in mind, drifting, curious. My son, drawn to the sound of flipping pages, pitched forward into his stomach. The encyclopedia was on the floor between us. He began writhing and wrenching his little body in such a way that he moved crookedly, haltingly forward. He’d never done this before. I pulled the book a little farther away. He kept moving toward it. I edged away and away until I’d made it to the other side of the room. He kept coming, wanting to grab and tear at the pages of my book about baseball, something so relentless in his efforts that when I told my wife about it we ended up talking about the latter moments of The Terminator, when the android played up to that point by Arnold Schwarzenegger has been stripped to nothing but metal and crawling, unceasing will.
Win Remmerswaal had a lot of talent. “Remmersmell, or whatever his name is,” said Reggie Jackson in 1980, “has the best arm of anyone on that staff.” He also had a lot of will. Before him, no European-raised player had ever made it to the major leagues. To get to the major leaguers from anywhere, you need talent and will, a truism no truer than when that anywhere is, in major league baseball terms, a relative nowhere. What Win Remmerswaal had in addition to talent and will was an uncommon connection to the thing that precedes talent and will. He played. In the minor league stop where he lasted the longest, Pawtucket, he became known and loved for his offbeat behavior and learned curiosities and wanderings and absences. He wanted to win and not lose, but he also wrote “win” on one shoe and “lose” on the other and, according to teammate John Tudor, quoted in an excellent biography of Remmerswaal on the SABR bio site, “he’d hop off on whichever foot happened that day.” Remmerswaal wanted to win and not lose, but during one road trip, his team changed planes in Washington, D.C., and he disappeared. He was gone for several days. On his reappearance he gave team owner Ben Mondor a box of cigars and explained, “I realized that I was in the nation’s capital, and that I may never see it again. So I decided to stay for a few days and look around.” He wanted to win and not lose but while his teammates attempted to narrow their focus only to winning and not losing and maybe some downtime painkilling swigs of beer or religion, Remmerswaal read Sartre, who once opined that “the genuine poet … is certain of the total defeat of the human enterprise and arranges to fail in his own life in order to bear witness, by his individual defeat, to human defeat in general.”
The other day, I gave up trying to write about Win Remmerswaal. I had been at it for some time, failing. The dour, fearful strain in my voice, the part of me that when I write is like a mediocre guitar player (which, as it happens, I am) playing the same tired blues lick over and over, unable to break through to some new way of feeling, is tempted to present his story as evidence that life only dissolves. He never hooked on with any permanence in the majors, never completely engaged the talent he was blessed with, blithely squandered his chances, meandered onward, out of the game. Several long, hard years followed, leading directly or indirectly to him suffering a debilitating stroke and falling into a coma in 1997. Wanting to know more about what happened next to Win Remmerswaal, I right-clicked the “translate to English” option on a feature on him at a Dutch website:
When, after a few weeks awoke, his brains and nervous system so badly damaged that it for the rest of his life in a wheelchair is designated to be fed and limited him to communicate falls.
My son now moves toward what he wants. Words will follow. He doesn’t know any yet. He’ll learn the word win. It’s a word that signifies a coming together. I’ll try to teach him the opposite of that word too, which is not lose but remmerswaal. That word, if it were a word, would signify entropic unraveling. It’s a middle-aged man blinking to awareness in the aisles of a supermarket, a toy in one hand, a baseball card in the other. It’s the spiral of stars in the sky. It’s a middle-aged man surrendering his grip on an unbroken line through the years to hold something better. It’s you, my boy; it’s love. And it’s Remmerswaal himself, in a nursing home undone, but who just the other day was in the big leagues. Just the other day he was coming to a set position and looking for his sign. Just the other day, close enough to touch, to study like a list, he begins.
Pitcher and Sky #2
The primary focus of this tour is a small unofficial series of baseball cards within the 1976 series of Topps baseball cards. We have seen the first of these cards already, featuring Alan Foster, but before proceeding to the next in the series let’s pause for a moment and consider a card from nearly two decades earlier, the 1957 card of Dave Sisler. Note the profound similarity of pose. The artistic mind behind the Alan Foster card did not invent the arms upraised pose. Essentially, there’s nothing new under the sun. What do you do with the burden of history? What do you do with limitations?
My mother’s study of Honoré Daumier focused on a series of his work titled Histoire Ancienne. It was comprised of caricatures that lampooned political injustices and cultural pomposities while puncturing the overbearing artistic orthodoxy of his day, namely the solemn, humorless neoclassicism reflected most notably in the work of Jacque-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. David and Ingres were the acknowledged masters looming over Daumier’s world, but instead of aping their painstaking reinterpretation of classical art he crossed the tracks, as it were, to work the “low art” side of town, using the symbolism of neoclassicism—the classical lexicon of heroes and gods—in new ways, heroes and gods pocked and elongated, stooped and frail, perverse with entirely human need. In lesser hands, the work would have been merely the stuff of transiently hilarious vaudevillian schtick, but Daumier was a master craftsman and his work has undeniable, irrepressible life in it. It swings. He wasn’t the only artist producing what my mom identifies as “classical parody,” but the work of the other satirists of his time is stiff and forgettable compared to Daumier’s. This is where so-called “low art” rises to the equal of anything in the realm of “high art”: it has undeniable lasting life, transforming the seemingly transitory nature of its one-off gag-work into a significant turning in the history of art. I guess I’m trying to approach the slippery unapproachable subject of irony.
Irony, in art, has to swing to exist. In the sense that I am using the word irony, there is an awareness, so pronounced as to be painful, of what has come before, an addressing of that burdensome infinite prelude, and in works of true ironic genius a toppling of it. Maybe music can be a way of illustrating my idea on this. Consider the Kingston Trio, that folk group that rode a general interest in folk music to massive popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the Kingston Trio was not venturing into the realm of irony. The group’s orthodox approach to old folk music was similar in some ways to the way Ingres and David solemnly channeled their interpretation of classical art. By contrast, the playful, unorthodox, eventually electrified and amplified (and—by orthodox folkies—vilified) hijacking of folk forms by a young interloper born as Robert Zimmerman: now that was fucking Irony. Go a little later in music history, the mid-1970s, and compare, say, Boston or Styx to The Ramones. On one hand, the short history of rock was ossified in slick unreflective arena acrobatics; on the other hand, four otherwise useless hooligans channeled with ape-man simplicity and focus—and consciously embraced the bungling of, the transfiguring of—the sheer ecstasy of the short, sweet pop song. Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy. Hallelujah irony.
Which brings us back to this Dick Sisler card, or more specifically the reckoning of it by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. Anything I write about a baseball card, anything anyone ever writes about a baseball card, does so in the shadow of that book. It appeared in 1973 and though it has over the years attracted a cult following I believe it’s underappreciated. It seems at first glance to be a product of so-called “low art,” a jauntily cobbled together collection of baseball cards from the 1950s and 1960s accompanied by the authors’ brief descriptions of the cards. As those who have fallen in love with the book know, these descriptions are poignant, hilarious, eye-opening, and as narcotically enjoyable as the world’s greatest piece of bubble gum. Beyond the sum of its parts, however, there is in the book something altogether new. Though the sardonic, leveling gaze of the authors was not unknown in other parts of the fragmenting culture of the early 1970s, the book was among the first—and was the most hilarious and therefore effective—to puncture the long-prevailing classicism of baseball writing. Even as recently as the all-encompassing cultural hagiography of Mickey Mantle (more to come on this), baseball writing and baseball imagery was most commonly a hallowing of othwerworldy abilities and of the worship of these abilities and of boyhood itself, where this worship was the strongest. Boyd and Harris used the cards of their youth to level and to decimate and to puncture and—in brand new ways—to praise, to swing in a way baseball writing hadn’t swung before. I’ve read the book many times and it still makes me laugh.
The authors mourn for the lot of Dave Sisler, who in a way is like all of us, burdened by history. Sisler was the son of a Hall of Famer and the brother of a pennant-winning hero. “Do you imagine,” the authors write, “that there were ever fifteen seconds during the waking existence of Dave Sisler that he was ever able to forget these facts?” The authors don’t comment on the arms upraised pose of Dave Sisler—a pose repeated throughout baseball history, as if it were the symbol for the inescapable shackling of history itself, one pitcher after another locked into a handcuff-ready surrender, year after year after year—but they do turn their gaze to the Dick Sisler offering from the exhibit that haunted and exalted their childhood:
Wouldn’t he have been happier as a lawyer or a clamdigger or something along that line? He must have known that no matter how good he was he was never going to be good enough. He seemed bright, too. He graduated from Princeton, wore glasses, and was very analytical in postgame interviews. Look at his face in the card—serious, intelligent, taut—the face of an early suicide.
This was not how people wrote about baseball players. It’s nearly forty years since the words were written and I’m still fucking laughing.
This morning I got up at 5 as usual, even though it’s Saturday. The days don’t open out wide like they used to, so if I want to write I have to get up early every day and get to it. But the baby was crying and his mother had been up most of the night with him. I took him with me so she could get a little sleep. I played with him, jiggled him, rocked him in his rocker while I shoveled down some oatmeal. After a while, he started rubbing his eyes, his sign that he’s getting tired, and I started rocking and shushing him back toward sleep. It took a while. Soon enough I was sweating. It’s work. But the whole process is most difficult at its gentlest moment, when I try to lay him back down in the little swing he sleeps in. You have to lay him down tenderly, let go tenderly. No straining effort, no clumsiness, no tricks. No spin. Release him to float on breezes. Do it wrong, he wakes.
You spend your whole life waking. As a kid I woke to baseball and to stories and to hopes. I woke to Dewey and Jim Ed and Yaz. Years went by. I woke to a dream of being a writer, and soon after that I started waking to what work is.
I’m thinking specifically of 1992, when I was waking to the failure of my first novel to be sold, waking to the impossibility that it would deliver me somehow to a realm where writing could be my work. That year I started working steadily at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan. You want to eat you got to work, one way or another. I put in the hours. Save for the occasional scary moments when teams of teenage shoplifters wilded through the aisles, it wasn’t a bad job, and there were good people there, but all in all it wasn’t exactly a life of leaping from glory to glory. There were long slow moments of nothing at all, a lot of them. I read the box scores when there were no customers. I began to notice a rookie from nowhere on a roll. And he was a knuckleballer! The idea of it was like a message from my childhood, off in the distance, a little Fidrychian birdcall.
It seemed this knuckleballer in Pittsburgh disappeared as quickly as he’d arrived. I kept working at the store for years until one day when a particularly confrontational shoplifting incident made me feel like some vital plug inside me had been pulled. The next day I talked to my boss, Morty
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told him.
“You’re going to have a tough life, Joshua,” he said, gently. “Backing down when things are tough. It’s no good.”
Morty knew what work is. He’d been in combat in World War II. He’d seen a handbag manufacturing business his father had built and passed on to him sputter due to government regulations; he’d then started up another business, a liquor store, only to have it burn down; he’d started again, with the store we were sitting in the back of. He’d seen things get tough and had hung in there.
I don’t think I said anything in response to his advice. The conversation kept playing in my mind long beyond that moment, however, and I began to revise my own part in it.
“But this is not my fight, Morty,” I replied to him in the revised version of the conversation. “Getting shot by fucking teenagers over a bottle of Alizé?”
“Well, then,” Morty would say. “What is your fight?”
This conversation played most frequently in my mind the summer after it actually happened. It was the summer of 1995, and after quitting my job I’d gone back to Vermont to try to write another novel. This is my fight, I kept trying to tell myself. This is what work is, I kept saying. But the internal monologue soon became strained and hysterical. I was gripping the ball way too tightly. Every day I went to a nearby college library and stared at my notebook until I wanted to take my pen and stab my eyes out. I still have the notebook from that summer and it will be exhibit A in the defense’s insanity plea case whenever I finally snap. After failing to write anything in the notebook except dire raging threats against myself, I would then move to the part of the library where they kept the newspapers on those long paper rods. There is something oddly humiliating about reading a newspaper on one of those rods. Really it was during those rod-paper moments when I came to realize that I hadn’t yet come close to waking to what work is.
I also noticed while flipping the pages of the rod-gripped news that the former rookie sensation from 1992 had resurfaced, and not only that but had reappeared on my favorite team, and he was doing well, his improbable comeback the key to the Red Sox division title that year. By the time the Red Sox were quickly bounced out of the playoffs I was back in New York and back at work at the liquor store. The years went on. The liquor store job gave way to other jobs. You spend your whole life waking, but you also spend your whole life drifting into various kinds of sleeps. The main goal of my life was to write, to make that my work, and in some ways I did, producing nonfiction books for young readers that amounted to the equivalent of a few weeks of salary at the liquor store. But all along I had this sense that real work was not getting done, that I hadn’t yet quite woken to it.
Tim Wakefield traveled along with me through those years. I liked that my team had a knuckleballer, but the player who would gradually become an all-time personal favorite to rival my childhood idol, Yaz, did so out of a kind of barely noticed constancy. He was always there. I began noticing that more often than was likely he’d be the starting pitcher whenever I’d make it to the game. He even followed me around the country. In 1999, I caught a game in Oakland, and there was Wake. In 2003, I caught an interleague game in Milwaukee, and there was Wake. Wake’s knuckler was flat and hittable that day, and the roof was closed, and the Brewers hit so many home runs in quick succession that a haze of gun smoke from the home run fireworks hung over the field. Bernie Brewer may have had a heart attack that day from hurrying so many times back to the top of his spiral slide, but he was saved when Wakefield, taking a turn at bat, was drilled in the ankle and had to be transported off the field on a golf cart. He sat upright on the back of the cart, his legs dangling, which seemed sort of humiliating somehow, as if he were being taken to a windowless room under the stadium where he’d be forced to read newspapers attached to long library rods. Wake recovered from the injury and later in the season pitched brilliantly in the playoffs all the way up until the last batter. I turned off the television the moment the ball struck by that last batter cleared the fence and I have tried, haplessly, to not give it a moment’s thought ever since.
A few months after Wake walked off the field as sadness personified at the center of raucous celebration, my girlfriend and I moved to Chicago. I got work. That was about eight years ago, 2004. I’m still waking to what work is. Work is paying bills and health insurance for my wife and kid. It’s showing up. It’s a long fucking bus ride to and from every day. It’s watching the cubicle next to you empty out during layoffs and saying a prayer of thanks it wasn’t you. It’s trying to do a good job. It’s doing a half-assed job. And it’s getting through those moments, those days, those weeks, those years, of doing something that doesn’t have anything to do with what you thought and hoped you might become. And it’s none of those things, too. It has nothing to do with real work.
Anyway, this morning I failed to lay the baby down the right way and he woke.
“Goddamn,” I muttered. I grabbed him back up to start all over with the shushing and jiggling and sweating and work.
“Hand him over,” my wife said. Sometimes I refuse this offer, but this morning I lateraled the boy to my wife as if to avoid a Lawrence Taylor sack. I went to my writing desk to do some work. I set this Tim Wakefield card on my desk. I thought about how long he’d been with me and how he was no longer going to be there, not in any rod-locked newspapers or on the field or in a baseball card. This is it. One last look.
Maybe because I couldn’t bear to take that last look, I procrastinated and, thinking about the idea of work, I located Philip Levine’s classic poem “What Work Is.” I read it and then listened to it being read by the author. It’s about work and about art and about love. It’s about that slow painful waking called life.
So finally then one last look. Wake at work. He is relaxed and focused. He is holding the ball lightly, tenderly. He is about to let go with a tenderness you may never see the likes of again. What happens next, after he lets go? With this pitch you can’t know what will happen next. My baby is awake. I can hear him. What will happen? You can’t ever know. The hard work, the real work, awaits.