How Strange the Design
I am looking for a pitch to hit. I get an at-bat every day, in the early morning before work, while the baby is still asleep. I sit at my desk. I take my stance, so to speak. I wait. Most of the time, I can’t even see the pitch. It has come and gone and my at-bat is over. Other times, I swing wildly. I want to connect. I want to, well, I’ll just say it, I wish I could make a living writing. I hope someday it will happen, but I’m not a fucking rookie anymore, so the notion of “someday,” which I’ve been addicted to for many years, should probably be avoided. Fuck someday. This present life, its contours and limitations, this is what exists. I’m not bitching. I mean I’m not ungrateful for the life I’ve got, the love, my family, my health, some employment, sporadic doses of good old television and booze to ease the pain. But the writing, well, this is probably it: one at-bat a day if I’m lucky, or maybe not even an at-bat, and not in a professional game either but for free, for nothing but the chance to connect. I am doing this for free. I am doing this for freedom. Like Bukoswki said in “Death Is Smoking My Cigars”:
I wanted the word down
and they wanted me at a punch press,
a factory assembly line
they wanted me to be a stock boy in a
well, death says, as he walks by,
I’m going to get you anyhow
no matter what you’ve been:
writer, cab-driver, pimp, butcher,
sky-diver, I’m going to get
you . . .
o.k. baby, I tell him.
we drink together now
as one a.m. slides to 2
only he knows the
moment, but I worked a con
on him: I got my
5 god-damned minutes
When the at-bat ends, I haul my bike out onto the street and ride it to a bus that takes me to work. I try to ride my bike carefully. I say a little prayer for safety before getting on. Still, there is a heightened awareness when riding a bike in a city, buses and trucks and texting-while-driving minivans careening all around you, that in life you are on one path and whatever it is that will end you is on another path, and one day these two paths will intersect. I am hoping to be very old when this intersection occurs, lying on a bed tired of life and satisfied and with my family still healthy all around me. I don’t want to say goodbye to anyone. I don’t want this to end.
Have I mentioned baseball yet in this post, besides the hackneyed “at-bat” conceit? Okay then, here: Ray Chapman had the habit of diving into pitches, I guess. Or maybe I’m confusing him with some other batter who famously caught one in the head. Chapman was a very good young shortstop, and one day his path intersected with the path of Carl Mays, or more specifically his head intersected with one of Mays’ pitches. Mays had a history of pitching inside. Also, it was getting dark. Chapman apparently never saw the pitch. You’ll never see it coming. It’ll just end. That’s how this game is designed.
But back to at-bats: I waste a lot of them. I get up and dick around here and there, looking on the internet, browsing decades-old newspapers in the Google archives for news about Sweathogs and bench-clearing brawls and Kurt Bevacqua. Lately I’ve been poring over a book I basically stole from my brother, A Donald Honig Reader. Whenever my life is overwhelming me I read it and read it. It is falling apart from this persisting need. It belongs to my brother, this book, but we lived together for a long time and our stuff intersected and so it seemed not implausible to me to think that the book could get mixed up in my stuff when we went off on our own paths, finally, but in truth I think I was entirely conscious of taking the book and only thought about the plausibility of a mix-up to soothe my conscience. I am not even a very good person, really. For example, yesterday I got home from work and was trying to rock my son to sleep in my arms and he was getting there, finally, when one of our cats came in the room and tried to get my attention by meowing and my kid’s eyes snapped open and I shoved the cat off a bureau and sort of kicked him a little to get him to sprint out of the room. I didn’t hurt him but I scared him, and I was angry at him. I love him, this cat, and I felt like a piece of shit for acting this way, a piece of shit, a piece of shit, but I was frustrated that it was taking so long to rock my son to sleep, and I was tired from working all day, and my legs were beat from biking to and from the bus with the heightened awareness that someday a Carl Mays beanball will end me, so to speak, and my brain was mushed from the long bus ride, and life was just catching up to me, my hopes and dreams and blah bah fucking blah. Fuck. Anyway, I stole this Honig book from my brother and sometimes don’t write in the mornings but read it obsessively, repeatedly. It is a massive book containing many first-person oral histories of old ballplayers. It is a beautiful thing, in quality equal to Lawrence Ritter’s more well-known and (deservedly) revered book The Glory of Their Times and in sheer quantity dwarfing Ritter’s work. Anyway, not too long ago I was reading the story of the guy who replaced Ray Chapman after Chapman died from the beaning, Joe Sewell. Some words near the end of Joe Sewell’s story hit a chord, and since then I’ve been trying to write toward those words with these cards. I have this card and one more and then I’ll leave this meandering nonstory and move on to some other cardboard investigation if I don’t get beaned or felled by disease or stray-bulleted or bushwhacked or broken or blasted to smithereens, sweet Yaz almighty bless this tenuous life.
So then anyway on to this fucking card. This card is from 1980, the last year I collected cards. All the cards that came to me up to then were something to count on, and the center of each year’s collection was the team I loved, the Red Sox. But immediately after the 1980 season ended, the Red Sox changed drastically, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Butch Hobson, and Rick Burleson all departing—half of the eight regulars (George Scott was already gone) who remained from the superb 1978 squad that had been undone by (if you believe in horoscopes) the trend toward the unusual and bizarre. This was jarring. Suddenly everything was different. Burleson and Hobson were the first to go, in a December trade that brought Mark Clear, Carney Lansford, and Rick Miller to the Red Sox. The arrival of Burleson in California effectively ended any chance that this 1980 Angels Future Stars card had of telling the exact truth. The Angels figured they were set at shortstop with Burleson and, badly needing pitching, shipped the player on the far right of this card to Houston for Ken Forsch. All three Future Stars had played for the Angels, sparingly, in 1980 (along with Bruce Kison, who had come over from the Pirates). Thon had played the most, performing decently as a middle infield backup to aging starters Bobby Grich and Freddy Patek. Thon held down a similar role for the Astros in 1981, then took over as the starting shortstop in 1982 and moved to the glowing edge of stardom in 1983. So this 1980 card was almost right: Thon really was a future star, but just not for the Angels.
The future, the past: you can’t pin them down. They are too strange. This moment: typing rapidly on some keys with letters on them, hoping to get some feeling in my flesh before shoving off to work. Work. That started for me for real in the summer 1985, after I’d been expelled from boarding school. I got a job pumping gas. I remember the slow moments at the Shell station, time transformed into torture. My life since then has mostly been getting through time, making up little games to preoccupy myself. Work means giving yourself over to some other entity for some money, enough to keep the wheels turning. Before the summer of 1985, I was still in the kid’s world. In the summer of 1984: no job except throwing bales every few days at a nearby farm. Otherwise, I was still on my own to waste time. I played a lot of solitary games all over the house that summer. I was sixteen. I should have been, well, who knows. I probably shouldn’t still have been throwing a tennis ball off the roof and making up games. I remember Dickie Thon from that summer, not anything he did—I don’t remember noticing he was absent from the box scores that summer—but the image of him suggested by his promising 1983 numbers. I used those numbers—the steals, the homers, the triples—to create an imaginary character in my solitary games. Thon. In my games this Thon was taller than in real life (I had no idea how tall he was and see now from this card that he was 5’11”; in my imagination he was 6’3” at least), tall and thin and fast, powerful enough to smack home runs but just as prone to sting line drives deep into the corners of the Astrodome and wind up in a flash on third with a triple. I saw him in my mind out at shortstop, too, standing tall and possessing a cannon arm, a little like Cal Ripken but faster, making everything look easy. His name was sort of futuristic, maybe because it was similar to “Tron,” and there was permanence in it, too, simple and elemental, a piece of the ancient word marathon and somehow the piece that made the word ring. The Asros uniform was part of it; Thon would not have been this last pillar in the mansion of imagination of my childhood had he worn any other uniform but that last blazing rainbow flare from the 1970s. By then, the summer of 1984, Dickie Thon had already intersected with a Mike Torrez pitch that ended his season and his stardom. He would struggle all the way back eventually, working, working, but he was never the same. I don’t care about that. I still see him as beautiful and brilliant in my mind, the way I did that last wide summer my time was my own.