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.