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Jim Tyrone

December 19, 2016

jim-tyroneDays up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away
-Townes Van Zandt, “To Live’s To Fly”

 

I’ve let a lot of life slip through my hands. Turned away days? Try years. And even now when I finally get that I’m here for a reason, when I want to be here for my two boys and everyone else I love and who loves me, even now every given day is at least a partial turning away. I’m always looking for the exit at least just a little, that exit-looking tendency one and the same with the very ache that has accompanied life all along, even as far back as 1978, ten years old, hoping some superstar would appear in a pack of cards along with the brief, fizzling rush of the cheap sugar high from the gum and dissolve the ache. Superstars could fix a day, but most days went without them. But even so, even if I then turned the day away, I at least turned none of these cards away. These I collected.

I remember some, but most at this point are like this Jim Tyrone card from 1978: a tangible remnant of a lifelong forgetting. Yesterday I grabbed it at random from my box of cards and couldn’t remember anything. The image itself reinforces the aura of opacity. You can’t see his face very well, and he seems himself to be passing through a moment of uncertainty. The back of the card also passes this feeling along, communicating Jim Tyrone’s spotty purchase in the majors, his major league career a transient flickering, too much like life itself to be the kind of thing that will ring forever in the mind of a kid holding the card.

What was the day when I got this card? Was it hot, sunny? Did I ride my bike down to the general store to buy a pack or two or did I walk? That day did I throw a tennis ball off our roof for hours? Did I play catch with my brother? I would like to think so.

I don’t get to see my brother but once a year these days, but yesterday I saw him in my mind, thanks to my father mentioning him. I had called my mother and father to say hello. I talked with my mom first, and then she handed the phone off to my father. He told me he has enjoyed my recent writing on this site.

“I like that you’re thinking about philosophers and, uh, fascism. I’m thinking about that too.”

My father spends most of his day reading, his mind still sharp at age 91. He was a young man when fascism last came this way on a global scale. He signed up to fight this evil, serving in the Navy, and meanwhile his mother, my grandma, continued working furiously to try to get relatives in Europe out of grave danger. She kept doing what she could after the war too. When my father came home from the Navy and resumed living in a small Lower East Side apartment with my grandma, he shared a bedroom for a while with a previously unknown cousin from Europe, Joe, a concentration camp survivor. You can call it fear mongering if some thoughts leak out of me about fascism. You might be right. I hope you’re right. And I can certainly understand your disappointment if you came here under the assumption that this would be about baseball, only baseball, or even mostly baseball. I’m just trying always to understand where I am in the world, and these cards as always are among the only things I feel like I can hold onto. Anyway, yesterday as I was talking to my dad I asked him about some new treatments he’s been trying for his foot. He has always liked going on walks, but his foot has been a problem recently. He and my mom have been trying whatever they can.

“How do you like the acupuncture?” I asked him. I said it loud because his hearing is not great.

“What?” he said. “You’re doing agriculture?”

I tried again, a little louder, and he laughed, realizing his error. He then talked about the Christmas lights going up all over his neighborhood and how he liked them. He said he was looking forward to my brother, who lives nearby them, bringing over his family’s tree. Every year my brother and his family have a tree at their house until they go up to visit my brother’s in-laws. Just before they leave, my brother brings over the tree.

My brother lugging over a used tree to brighten up my parents’ house! It makes me happy to think of it.

Before my mom handed the phone over to my dad, my younger son Exley talked to her a little, saying “hi” and “bye” as she also said “hi” and “bye.” Later, that night, as I was trying to get Exley to go to sleep, he said, “Phone. Hi. Bye.”

“Yes, we talked to grandma today. You said hi and bye.”

“Me? Come?”

“Yes,” I said. “I wish we could come over more often. They live so far away.”

“Dog,” Exley said.

“Yes! You walked grandma’s dog the last time you were there!”

Exley then lifted his leg.

“Pee,” he said.

“Yes, Shaggy lifted his leg to pee.”

How much of this will I remember? I love so much this little passage, with Exley still just learning words but already telling stories. But it’s already hard for me to remember when my other son, Jack, was at this stage. Having two young kids throws me into an obliterating present the likes of which I haven’t seen since my own childhood. But I remember yesterday, at least for now. There were several rough spots, Jack and Exley battling over various things, Exley loosing blood-curdling screams, Jack crying, Exley crying, me losing my shit and adding to the maelstrom by shouting, which of course was followed by more crying.

Am I ever going to circle this back to Jim Tyrone?

Well, I do remember that yesterday for a long stretch I pitched a big yellow rubber ball to Jack, who smashed it with a foam bat, rocketing line drives all over the basement (and occasionally off my face). That was fun. Exley wasn’t participating much—instead he was putting CDs into the CD player and blasting them at top volume. I am of course hoping that someday both boys will play baseball and play it together. This is probably a hope rooted in the hope I have for any day from childhood lost to memory—that it included me and my brother playing baseball together. Any day that had me playing catch with my brother was a day I didn’t fully turn away.

Jim Tyrone traveled through pro ball with his brother Wayne trailing behind. Both were in the Cubs system, but while Jim made it to the big leagues with the Cubs in 1972, 1974, and 1975, he didn’t spend any time with the big club in 1976, Wayne’s only year in the majors. The two did play together a bit on the Cub’s triple A squad that year, and while Jim had a good year there, it’s easy to see why the Cubs decided to roll the dice with the younger brother, as 1976 saw Wayne smashing 8 home runs in 84 at bats at triple A.

As it turned out, Wayne wasn’t able to stick in the majors beyond that one season, and he never got a baseball card. He and Jim did reunite in the short-lived Inter-American League with the Miami Amigos, where Jim led the league in batting average and Wayne led in homers. Jim went on to star in Japan for a couple of seasons, while Wayne played in Mexico. Both brothers were elected to the University of Texas Pan American Hall of Fame, along with their younger brother, Leonard, who passed away. I’d like to dedicate these ramblings to him. And I’d like to end with some information that I tried and failed to verify last night, the last thing I did yesterday. According to some sources Wayne Tyrone won a car on the Price Is Right in 1983.

I don’t know what to make of any of this.

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Larry Gura

December 13, 2016

larry-gura

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

Friedrich Nietzsche said that, according to the internet. I came upon it while trying to find something along the lines of what I’d remembered being said by the other Larry featured in my last post on this site—Larry from the liquor store. I don’t have any faith in my memory, but I’m pretty sure what he said amounts in retrospect to a rejoinder to Nietzsche: “There’s my opinion and your opinion, and then there’s the truth.” At the time I heard Larry say that, I didn’t see things that way. Things are all relative, fragmented, always in flux. How can there be any objective truth? But it seems to me now that Larry was right, and Nietzsche can go fuck himself. Truth is something we should all be working toward. We should all be searching to uncover facts. To give up on this search for truth would be to enter a new and probably inescapable dark age.

***

Larry Gura is a satisfying and comforting thing to say. You can’t see his whole name here, just Larry G, but it’s there in full on the back of the fragment. Yesterday I tried and failed to explain the whole world through Larry Gura. The day before yesterday I tried and failed to explain the whole world through Larry Gura. The day before that I found this fragment of Larry Gura, the second such fragment featured on this ludicrous ongoing undertaking in as many weeks, among some cards my two sons were playing with.

This version of Larry Gura didn’t come to me in my childhood but rather was a rare 1970s interloper in the modest stacks of commons that came to me every Christmas from my aunt’s wife for a few years. Most of those cards were from the 1990s and beyond, long after I stopped trying to find some still point in the world through baseball cards. By the 1990s baseball cards seemed as fragmented as anything else, several companies churning out sets. It was different in the 1970s, when there was just one set, created by Topps. It was a shared reality. My Larry Gura was the same as anybody else’s Larry Gura anywhere in the world. I would say Larry Gura and you would know what I mean. The same satisfaction and comfort would engulf us. Larry Gura! On the other hand, the fact that there was just one set means that Topps had a monopoly, which I know is not a good thing, and so I’m going to refrain from getting nostalgic about it. Nostalgia is fungal. It’s moistened sentimentality, horseshit, decay. You reach back through time toward some obliterating fiction of wholeness, blinding yourself to the facts of the past. Beware nostalgia. Beware slogans about the glory of times gone by.

***

Today I Googled the term “fash haircut.” Or was it “fashy haircut”? I already can’t remember, but either way I wanted to be sure when I’m next in Supercuts I don’t accidentally get one. From what I could tell, the thinning wavy mass on my head seems immune to them. Anyway, I ran into Nietzsche again, because after squaring away the haircut question I decided to Google fascism just to see whether I understood the basics, and the philosopher of course came up as a big favorite among those believing that the best of all possible worlds would be one in which an autocrat rules a violently militarized police state. I’m not sure whether the quote about the nonexistence of truth, which I’d come upon earlier while trying to find echoes of Larry from the liquor store, is a cornerstone of thought among those sporting such a haircut, but I can see that it might have its proponents in those quarters. It’s an easy goose-step from that notion of thinking that there’s no such thing as truth to believing that everything is a base conflict between the weak and the strong.

***

This has nothing to do with anything, perhaps, but today I went ice skating. I hadn’t ice skated for close to forty years. My son Jack and I carefully tiptoed to the edge of the rink in our borrowed skates and then stepped out onto it. I felt instantly as if I’d made a huge mistake. It seemed like it would be impossible to move even a little. But my son and I held each other and inched out toward the center of the ice.

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Larry

December 9, 2016

larry

Ngai and I were working the Saturday night shift. This was in the early 1990s, before you could read things like this on the internet. Before the internet. I sat on the stool behind the counter up at the front of the store, gazing warily out the store window at the river of shitheads streaming up and down Eighth Street.

Stay away, I prayed.

I leaned against a thin vertical slat of wood in the shelves between the half pints and pints. The tops of several tacks pushed into my back. They held up photos. I knew the photos by heart at that time, thanks to all the long blank spans of time during my shifts at that liquor store, but I can’t remember them anymore.

I have to imagine myself swiveling on the stool, away from the staggering, wanting pedestrians out on Eighth Street. I look once again at those curling photos. I see photos of clerks who’d worked there before me, young men dazed, young men smiling, young men waiting like I was, a year or two or ten, for something to pull us along to somewhere else.

***

The card fragment at the top of this page, the handiwork of my younger son, is of a player named Larry. I found it on the carpeted basement floor of our condo last Saturday night while I was playing with my older son. He has several construction vehicles that he refers to as the Bob the Builder team, after a show he watches, and he likes me to pretend I’m the one called Scoop and get into dangerous situations. We do virtually the same scenario again and again. When I found this scrap of card on the carpet, I seized on it like a starving man might seize a sandwich.

When people tell parents of young children that “it all goes by so fast,” they aren’t remembering the many eternities of exhaustion and anxiety and boredom, those stretches of time that seem to slow to something beyond time altogether. But of course I know someday this will all be gone, and it will seem to have passed like nothing. I know this time with my boys is the golden era of my life, what I was always waiting for when I was waiting for my life to begin.

***

I see among the photos on the slat of wood between the half-pints and pints one of the owner, Morty, with his friend Larry.

Morty is wearing a Silver Surfer T-shirt, a clerk’s ironic tribute to Morty’s Silver-Surfer-like bald dome and to Morty’s habit of wearing any T-shirt thrown his way.

“What do I give a shit what I wear?” he would crow.

In the photo he’s got his mouth open, words pouring out. This also matches the figure on his shirt, whose agonized metallic face is open in a howl.

“I will endure!” the Silver Surfer vows.

In the photo, Morty is flanked by his friend Larry. Larry’s full head of close-cropped hair is flecked with silver. His clothes are impeccable. His mouth is closed, his chin upraised.

Both men are solid as granite.

***

It took me a few minutes, but with the sparse hints—the mention of 1976, the ERA numbers, perhaps even the word Championships, more than anything the fact that his first name was Larry, narrowing the possibilities considerably—I guessed the full identity of this Larry. Can you? That’s about as far as most internet posts go, right? Trivia lobbed forth in hopes of what? Hits? But instead of piecing together a whole, I want to dwell in the fragmentation, in that brief moment when I didn’t know who this Larry was. When Larry could be Larry, just Larry. Any Larry.

***

That Saturday night as I sat on the stool up front, gazing at the photos between the half-pints and pints, Ngai was in the back of the store, leaning on the edge of Morty’s desk. He was flicking open a gravity knife and closing it and flicking it open again.

The phone behind the cash register rang. I picked it up.

“Eighth Street,” I said.

“Josh, Lar.”

“Larry!”

“Listen. I want you to bring me up two rolls of quarters.”

“Quarters? Quarter-pints, you mean?”

In the back of the store, Ngai turned the blade of his knife back and forth, looking at it.

Or maybe this wasn’t the time when he was into gravity knives. Maybe this was when he got really into origami. Maybe he was holding a tiny paper flamingo in his hands, turning it back and forth. Who can remember?

***

Last week my wife and I decided to subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. I had been reading some stuff about how now more than ever there should be an effort to support journalism. I don’t hold to the illusion that we’ll be getting more than fragments of the world in the New York Times, but at least it’s a start, a way to expand my general habit of randomly absorbing fakery and mongering and trivia.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” wrote Yale history professor Timothy Snyder last week. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

So this past Sunday morning I got up with my youngest son at around six in the morning and for the next couple of hours kept looking out the window to try to see whether our newspaper had arrived. I didn’t want someone to swipe it. Nowadays who knows what people will do?

***

Eventually Ngai looked up at me, wondering what was being asked of me through the phone. The Saturday night shift at the liquor store was all about weathering volatile requests.

“Larry?” I said. “You still there?”

“This motherfucker,” Larry finally said.

“Let me talk to him,” Ngai said.

“I know he’s the one,” Larry said. “Quarters, Joshua, you hear me? Two rolls of quarters, one for each hand. I’m gonna cave this cocksucker’s head in.”

***

Maybe I’ll leave the story there, with Larry asking me to deliver him two rolls of quarters, with me years later holding my youngest son and peering out the window on the lookout for a newspaper thief and thinking of Larry. That’s what had happened so many years before to Larry. Someone had started stealing his New York Times. That Saturday night when he called the store he had decided who the perpetrator was and had decided what he was going to do to the perpetrator.

Why of all things does that story stick with me, the one when he called up and asked me to deliver him ballast for his fists?

The world is always falling apart, and we’re powerless to stop this, but it has always been pleasing to me in my powerlessness to imagine Larry, solid as granite, roaring out of his apartment in his bathrobe to catch a newspaper thief red-handed. It’s pleasing to me to imagine him with those rolls of quarters in his large hands.

You’re in for it now, motherfucker, I like to think.

***

The last time I saw Larry was at Morty’s memorial. That was a few years ago. He came to the memorial with Ngai. It was at the apartment of one of the former clerks. There were photos all over the walls, some of them the same as the photos that had been tacked up at the store. I’ve mentioned this before a while back, but Larry started crying as he looked at a photo of Morty.

“I miss you, you old fuck,” Larry said.

When the memorial was over Ngai and Larry left together. I can’t remember the details of that memorial that well, but I think Larry was having a little trouble walking, and Ngai was helping him. Years earlier, Ngai had been the one who’d been able to calm Larry down, to convince him that he shouldn’t use two rolls of quarters to cave in the newspaper thief’s face. So maybe that’s where I’ll leave this story, with Larry leaning on Ngai as both move slowly out of the memorial, out of sight.

Everything will be reduced to fragments, and then it will disappear. How are you holding it together?

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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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Hector Torres

November 22, 2016

hector-torres

Who are you now?

I don’t know about now, but a long time ago I was just a kid collecting cards, a kid collecting joy. I was eight when this one came to me. The name wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but I might have paused for a moment and looked into his eyes. I think it would have made me want to go get a bat. I don’t know who I am now, but when I was a kid I wanted to get in the game. I wanted to go forward. I wanted to play. With anyone, everyone.

Who are you now?

Hector Torres is the son of Epitacio “La Mala” Torres, a legendary Mexican rightfielder who Whitey Ford once called the best he’d ever seen. The elder Torres, whose nickname means “The Bad,” seems to have been the Ichiro of his time and place, a relatively quiet man who didn’t hit for much power but hit for high average and had a cannon arm. Hector’s own skills showed themselves early, and he used them as a dominant 12-year-old pitcher to lead his Monterrey team to the Little League World Series championship in 1958. He wasn’t a pitcher in the majors, though he did once log two-thirds of an inning for the Montreal Expos in a rout. La Malita (“The Little Bad”) got shelled in the return to the elevated locus of his childhood. Whatever you were as a kid is gone.

Who are you now?

Who are you now that we’re talking about Nazis and internment camps and walls of all kinds, figurative and literal, all amounting to the same thing: the bad is the other, not us, and needs to be on the other side of the wall?

Who are you now?

Everywhere you look there’s darkness. Take the name of the team shown at the bottom of this card, the Padres, a reference to the religious missionaries who came into California to spread Christianity. Indians who had thrived without it for thousands of years were forced into missions, where they were whipped and beaten if they didn’t behave according to the dictates of the missionaries who believed that they were doing holy work. If you believe differently, who are you now?

Who are you now?

I don’t know if Hector Torres is religious, but he once nearly killed Jesus. Jesus Alou, that is. From the June 6, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated:

A frightening collision between Jesus Alou and Hector Torres of Houston . . . could have resulted in tragedy had it not been for fast work by Pittsburgh trainer Tony Bartirome and his Houston counterpart, Jim Ewell. They may well have saved Alou’s life, prying his tongue from the back of his throat and inserting a rubber hose that permitted Alou to breathe normally again. Torres received only minor cuts, but Alou got a severe concussion and a broken jaw.

Who are you now?

You might think that Hector Torres’s collision with Jesus was neither holy nor unholy, but maybe the essence of holiness is a connection between people, some communication either said or unsaid that allows for peaceful interdependence, and maybe the essence of unholiness is the lack of this connection, which leads instead to jarring, injurious collision. We’re coming together whether we like it or not. There are no lasting borders here on earth, and probably not anywhere else either. Heaven and hell are just words. The choice is connection or collision.

Who are you now?

Hector Torres made borders dissolve. He was the first Mexican player to play in both the Little League World Series and the major leagues. He was also the first man to play for both Canadian teams, beating Toronto Blue Jay teammate and fellow former Expo Ron Fairly to the honor by two days. I didn’t know any of that when I looked at his card in 1976, but I may have wondered about another border, the one between here and gone. On the back of the card, below the heading “Complete Major League Batting Record,” there are statistical entries for every year between 1968 and 1973 and then one last entry for 1975. Nothing for 1974. Where did he disappear to that year? Could he disappear again? My understanding of baseball statistics surely indicated that for Torres, a lifetime .214 hitter at the time of this card, this was a distinct possibility.

Who are you now?

Or where are you now? Do you have one foot out the door? Are you planning to follow Hector Torres’s twice-trod path to Canada? Are you planning to follow Hector Torres’s path into mysterious invisibility? I’ve entertained both thoughts, though the latter has gotten much more serious consideration. Just try to imagine we’re not all bound for strangulating collisions of every kind. Just watch old TV shows and look at old baseball cards and try to disappear into what you once were, a simple collector of joy.

Who are you now?

I’m a father, fearful for my boys and the world, and I’m giving the front of this card another look now, same as I would have done when I was eight. That look in Hector Torres’s eyes. La Malita has been gone, but he’s battled his way back. He’s here. He’s no superstar. He’s choking up on the bat. He’s going to try to connect.

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Marvin Freeman

November 16, 2016

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The morning of our first protest march, Jack and Exley pretended to be big trucks pushing garbage around. The role of garbage was played by a big pile of baseball cards from the late 1980s and onward. I keep my childhood cards in a couple of boxes in the closet but let my boys do whatever they want with the ones that have come to me since then. They pummeled them for a while and then Jack wanted to pretend we were all Rescue Bots saving people from volcanoes.

“We have to clean this up first,” I said. This statement, which is on a constant loop from my mouth, can often make the ensuing passage of time unpleasant, conflictive, but for some reason this time Jack just said OK.

“I’ll bulldoze them over to you and Exley and you put them in.” This is what we did. Jack stopped at one point.

“Who’s this?” Jack asked. He held up the card you see here.

“Can you tell me?” I said.

Lately he’s been showing some signs that he’s ready to start reading. I don’t push him much with this kind of stuff because it seems to me childhood is already under siege by adults drilling their kids unceasingly, worried that the kids, no matter how young, are “falling behind,” and in this frantic worry passing along no love of learning at all but just frantic worry. The philosophy I try to adhere to is summed up best by the chant that climaxes The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: Let Them Play. But still, we’re talking about my son being on the brink of humanity’s greatest skill. I can’t help myself sometimes.

“Look at the letters,” I said.

“Muh,” Jack began. “Muh aah . . .”

***

Later that day we took our homemade sign and met up with some other families at a park a few blocks north of our home. People stood around eating donuts for a while, the whole thing seeming more like a neighborhood parent meetup than a march, but more people kept arriving, and then eventually what could reasonably be called a small crowd started walking in a line out onto the sidewalk.

Exley, our two-year-old, rode with my wife in a carrier, and Jack, five, rode on my back in something called a toddler carrier. We figured it might be difficult to have a bulky stroller in a march, and we knew that neither boy would make it if we made them go on foot the whole way. And as it turned out the march was a long one, down Clark from Jarvis all the way to Morse and then over to Sheridan and back up to Jarvis and west again. I carried our sign: “THIS IS A SAFE PLACE FOR EVERYONE.” Other people had signs too. Some tried to get a chant going—“no space for hate”—but everyone was too self-conscious about it and maybe not used to being in marches. Everyone had spent the previous few days, since Tuesday night, stunned and scared. It was the first time I’d ever been in a march, and outside of baseball games, where I’d joined in on such things of massive import as “we need a hit” (or one time in a movie theater when I was ten and shouted “Let them play” over and over along with all the other kids in my town and, up on screen, Kelly and Ogilvie and the rest), I’d never chanted anything before. I felt like a fool but not as big a fool as I’d have felt like if I’d not done anything, and not as big as fool as I feel like for going so long without doing anything.

***

“Muh aah rrrvvv ell nnn,” Jack read.

Marvelin. He misread the capital I for an l. He kept going.

“Fff rrr ee eeee mmm aaahh nnn,” he said.

Marvelin Freeman.

For a second I said nothing. Marveling. That would be just about the exact right word for how I felt for a moment on the morning of our first protest march.

***

We walked through our neighborhood, maybe a hundred of us, more or less, everyone with kids along. Some cars passing by honked their horns in support. A police car stopped and asked us how far we planned to go and followed us to our stopping point. On Clark, where the sidewalk was narrow, I got the distinct impression that we—a bunch of white people, with a few exceptions—were inconveniencing the people we were trying to include in our benevolent collective gaze: a couple of stocky Hispanic guys walking north as we walked south, a Muslim woman pushing a stroller through us north as we walked south. I thought I detected bemusement on some black people we passed. I was very self-conscious about my sign at these junctures. The sign was intended to be an affirmation, a pledge. But what power do I have to back up that pledge?

The figure serving as a sickening inspiration for our march had been using the city we marched through, Chicago, all through his campaign as shorthand for the lack of safety everywhere, promising that he had the answer for this. He never provided specifics, but other aspects of his rhetorical bluster suggests that the answer will involve bias and brutality, a combination that never leads to any lasting safety. And yet his implications seemed keenly attractive to those who pulled the lever for him. The sign I carried was thin cardboard, maybe not as thin as the cardboard shown at the top of this page but not a whole lot thicker. What will it do against what seems to be coming our way?

***

“Marvin Freeman,” I said. “You said it! You read his name!”

“Marvin Freeman,” Jack said.

“You want to put it in your box?” I said.

“You were thinking what I was thinking,” he said.

Jack has his own box of cards now, with Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi on the top for easy access. I pulled the box down from the top of the bookcase and we put Marvin Freeman inside.

Today I borrowed his Marvin Freeman card for a while. I read the name on the front, and it occurred to me that the last name was taken on upon emancipation, an ancestor of the pitcher not wanting to carry the name with him of his oppressor. I turned the card over and discovered one of the greatest bits of back-of-the-card text I’d ever seen.

I can’t wait until Jack can read it all. It’s the kind of thing that I read when I was first starting to read, like when I read that Richie Hebner was a grave-digger in the offseason.

You learn when something pulls you forward. For me, with reading, the thing pulling me forward was the ability to decipher messages on thin little rectangles of cardboard just like this one.

“While attending Chicago Vocational High School, Marvin was employed by a violin bow-making company hand-shaping and finishing concert-quality violin bows.”

I want everyone to feel safe and free in a world of such marvels.

h1

Cubs Future Stars

November 8, 2016

cubs-future-starsWhat can last? Even stars blink out. Everybody knows this. But what about future stars? How do they come to be? I was wondering about this today, and so I learned that stars form in nebulas. I learned that nebulas are clouded spots on the cornea that make it hard to see. That’s one meaning anyway. Nebulas are also enormous galactic clouds of gas and dust. Either version of the word comes from a Latin root meaning mist, the same root of the word nebulous. The same root of everything. We never know. Geisel, Macko, Pagel? How could these names ever indicate that the future would lead to a third baseman stumbling and falling and smiling as he threw to first for an out to obliterate all old failings? We’re fans, all of us, which means we hope without knowing, love without seeing. Stars are born in the blooming regions of our blindness.

***

We got Wally a few months after we got our first cat, Marty. Wally was always Number Two. The number one cat, Marty, had shiny black fur and a gleam in his eye and charisma. He was smart, scheming, at times an out and out dick. Often he wanted nothing to do with you, but other times he reached out to you gently with his paw and purred, wanting attention, and he got it. If he was a baseball player he’d have been a Great, the kind of guy you remember unveiling in a pack of new cards. Marty even died spectacularly, suddenly plummeting from decent health into a terrifying series of increasingly violent seizures. Wally? Here’s Wally: Many times I’d be sitting on the couch and would look down in my lap and see that Wally had at some point arrived there and was purring in his ragged, drooly, number-two cat way. I was in the midst of petting him, but I didn’t remember starting.

“Wally, when’d you get here?” I’d ask him.

***

I have no memory of most of these baseball cards coming into my life. In a way it feels like they’ve always been with me, that I’ve always been touching them, looking at the faces on one side, the words on the other, or not even looking at them at all, just touching them, feeling the cardboard soften over the years. This sense of a beginingless beginning is strongest with the nobodies, like these Cubs Future Stars from 1980.

I’ve been holding this card in my hands a lot in the last few days.

***

Wally began losing weight a few months ago. We figured it was because his teeth, which were always terrible, had begun falling out, leaving him unable to vacuum up his usual daily mountain of dry food. His departure from a life of feline obesity seemed for the most part to revitalize him. He’d been an awkwardly fat cat for most of his life, unable to do the athletic things his more dashing brother Marty could do, but as he got thinner we started seeing him in places he’d never been before.

“Wally, when did you get up there?” we’d say, marveling at him up on the mantle.

***

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more beautifully mortal baseball game than the last contest of 2016. There were several physical errors by the Cubs fielders, who all season long had been among the best defensive units in baseball; there was an instance of over-managing by the highly respected Cubs leader that seemed as the game wore on to look more and more like it would be etched in baseball history as a tragic misstep; there was an All-Star pitcher, Jon Lester, stricken and helpless on the mound, unable to perform the first skill any little leaguer masters, namely making a short throw across the diamond to a teammate; and there were two previously unhittable relievers hollowed out by exhaustion and hittable and themselves abundantly in need of relief. Even the final out, immediately after which all the human frailty and failings of the game and of the preceding 108 years seemed to vaporize like dust in the face of a brilliant new star, was made by the gangly Cubs third baseman as he stumbled and fell, as if he’d slipped on a banana peel, one last echo of a century of doomed Cubs slapstick.

***

Recently the rate of weight loss increased. Wally kept nibbling at his wet food, but he just got thinner. A little over a week ago Wally became unable to jump up onto the counter, let alone the mantle. He stayed in the corner near his food, even though he wasn’t eating much, and he meowed at me whenever I was near. I kept giving him new food. I even started heating it up in the microwave because I’d heard somewhere that that might make food more appetizing to an old cat whose senses were weakening. He ate a little of each new offering and then stopped and crouched down again and looked out toward me unsteadily, as if his vision was starting to fail. Sometimes he lay all the way down for a while, and sometimes he got up and sat in a strangely contorted way, his thin legs splaying out to the side as they never had before.

***

The mortality of Game Seven crested for me somewhere in the middle, with David Ross splayed out awkwardly, near supine and momentarily immobile, as a wild pitch from his bedeviled battery mate, Lester, that had bounced off the catcher’s facemask careened far enough away for two runners to score, an occurrence so rare—it last happened in a World Series in 1911—as to border on the impossible. Ross went on to contribute mightily to the Cubs win by hitting a home run, but I still see him there reeling, tangled in his own splayed limbs, the game reeling away from his command.

***

People talk about baggage, about carrying around burdens, and it’s always a reference to the past, to the past’s ability to drag us down. But of course the past doesn’t exist. It’s gone. The future doesn’t exist either, but it might. The past has no might to it. So that ache you feel, that burden, whatever it is, it’s about facing the future, whether it’s the next day, the next few years, the next second. The day before Game Seven, I took the afternoon off from work and put Wally into a cat carrier and drove him up Clark Street to the only vet we could find that wasn’t booked up. A few miles south of me, people were massing in bars in Wrigleyville to watch Game Six, hoping there’d be a future for the team beyond that night. I got to the vet early and sat in the waiting room. As I waited, the future I was thinking about was just a few minutes up ahead of me. What would I be carrying back out into the street? I unzipped the top of the carrier and stuck my hand in and petted the top of Wally’s head. This was the only place to pet him. Everywhere else you were touching a skeleton. He was purring.

***

When I got home from work on Wednesday, the day of Game 7, my kids were out at a restaurant with their mom and grandma. The house was emptier than it had ever been. I felt it in my shins, which I’ve been conditioned to use as blockers when I open the front door. I heard it in my ears, which are conditioned to hear a friend demanding attention and food. I saw it in what I could no longer see anywhere. I sat down on the couch and turned on Game Seven and nothing gathered unnoticed on my lap.