I used to follow baseball. I mean I used to just follow it anywhere and everywhere. Lyman Bostock. Mario Mendoza. Up, down, whoever, however. I veered away from this undifferentiated, open, curious following in college, thinking at that time that I might instead find some blazing singular path to follow. I was nineteen, twenty, right around the age Tom Wilhelmsen was when he wandered away from baseball. I don’t know what he wanted. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to believe the way to this would reveal itself with great clarity. Like a pitcher hoping to discover an unhittable out pitch, I hoped for one perfect sentence to usher forth and start some masterpiece and furthermore unlock all the songs inside me forever.
Never happened. You follow one day to the next, follow a day of shit writing with another day of shit writing and some days don’t even get that.
Now I follow my two sons around. They’re going to turn five and two this summer, my two sons, Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. The ideas they have! The physical idiocy! I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I laugh a lot. Anything else I ever followed has fallen off the edge of the world, more or less.
I do keep tabs on two players. Neither is doing very well this year. One is Eugenio Velez. As I wrote about in Benchwarmer, he’s one of the primary talismans of my life as a father, a life that began in 2011, when Eugenio Velez last appeared in the major leagues. He spent that entire season hitless, an excursion into futility so pronounced as to set two monumental records (most consecutive plate appearances without a hit—a record skein that began in 2010—and most at bats in a single season without a hit). I’ve been keeping tabs on him ever since, hoping that his inspiring persistence as an able minor-league hitter would merit a return to the majors so that he could get a hit. After several productive minor league seasons, he’s now batting just .223 for Quintana Roo of the Mexican League. He’s 34. You have to figure the end is near.
I worry that the same may be true for Tom Wilhelmsen, age 32 and owner of a 7.62 ERA, who also breached my narrowing field of awareness because of fatherhood. I didn’t know about him until I perused the back of this card one day when sitting on the floor with my older son. Occasionally, I dump a bunch of newer cards on the floor and let my offspring do what they will with them. Fling them around, rip them, gnaw them, whatever. The hardest part of parenting is living through the moment at hand, especially when your default mode, as mine is, is to disappear from life. You can’t do it anymore!
“Stop looking at the card!” Jack said.
“OK, OK,” I said.
“Never look at the cards,” he said. I promised not to, promised to myself to play with him when I actually had the time to do so, but I’m sure I’ll keep trying to sneak away. How could I not when there are such discoveries as these to be made:
I’m talking about all the years of pure disappearance. It’s the longest such stretch in history—it must be. DID NOT PLAY for year after year. Two years into his minor league career, Tom Wilhelmsen bailed and stayed gone for six years before circling back. Actually the card seems to be erroneous on this account, as it doesn’t include a sixth DID NOT PLAY for 2009.
He came back when he was ready, I suppose. His nickname is “the Bartender,” a reference to how he spent a significant chunk of his exile. Within a year of deciding to give it another go he was in the majors, debuting in 2011, Eugenio Velez’s hitless nightmare, my debut as a dad.
Something about this gives me hope, and I can’t put my finger on why. We’re meant for something. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes.
Last night at dinner, after a long day of unstoppable, injurious jackassery so pronounced that my voice was raw from screaming the word no—a shit day, a day to make you want to disappear—Jack wanted me to tell him all the songs I sang to him when he was a baby, when I used to hold him and sing him to sleep. I sang bits of the songs I could remember from that rocky time, when each day I wanted to disappear, to leap off the edge of the world, following everything else that was going that way, but something kept me around, at least to some extent. Career Opportunities, Rockaway Beach, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.
“You liked the loud, fast ones,” I said. “They calmed you down.”
“Sing more,” Jack said.
“Well it’s been ten years and a thousand tears, and look at the mess I’m in,” I sang, rasping like Mike Ness.
“Sing more,” Jack said.
I kept singing, whatever it took, whatever I knew. Jack was smiling. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes. Maybe something is gathering within.