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Mickey Stanley

January 18, 2017

mickey-stanley

Mickey Stanley is pretty much exactly what you would get if you mixed together Mickey Mantle and Fred Stanley.

I can elaborate, but my back hurts so much. All the elaborating is over when you get knifing pains in your back if you so much as try to thumb the like button on any of your various stupid time-wasting virtual platforms.

I think it’s from when I was catching my sons jumping off the couch a few days ago. They climb up onto the back of the couch and take turns jumping toward me, and I catch them and spin them around. The joy of it! The terror! This is their world! What if they fall! But what am I going to do—tell them to cut the shit and sit down and start practicing their looks of disappointment so as to be prepared for when they hit the dog years of adulthood? And so I end up with hernias, back issues. The older, heavier one likes to improvise, and it was probably one of the times he spun around in midair, causing me to lunge to catch him, that crippled me forever.

Well, not forever, hopefully, but these kinds of things really drive home the point that life is an unstoppable deterioration. So why spend so much time pondering baseball players? Why don’t I get into collecting and trading ephemera on old rabbis? Like the one with Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershyscha, who maybe had among his followers in Poland in the early 1800s some Wilkers, who huddled there in a tenacious multi-generational pogrom-surviving Wilkerean cringe and were pretty big fans of rabbis all through the family tree until it branched out into a young bespectacled fellow, my father, cracking open the works of Karl Marx. To young Lou Wilker, religion, and sports for that matter: opiates! But I followed in neither his nor my older ancestors’ footsteps, neither overthrowing the system or studying rabbis, but somehow I acquired the knowledge that Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket: bishvili nivra ha-olam (“for my sake the world was created”) was written on one, and “v’anokhi afar v’efer” (“I am but dust and ashes”) was written on the other.

You should see my sons spinning through the air in my arms. They are beaming with this feeling of bishvili nivra ha-olam. This is the feeling of childhood, the part of it we like to hang onto anyway. This is why a fellow such as Bob Costas carries around a Mickey Mantle card, I guess. But anybody who tries to hold onto Mickey Mantle alone might miss some of the picture. For his sake the world was created—how could this not apply in all ways to Mickey Mantle, chiseled sunlit immortal who could do everything on a baseball field as well as anyone else in history and was the blond, Caucasian, high-salaried, handsome star of the most powerful baseball team in history at its absolute peak? Yes, such a thing would indeed make a good talisman, a reminder that even to so much as to be alive in this world, such a rare and beautiful thing considering the black lifeless space stretching out in every direction for light years from this one tiny blue planet, is a blessing as breathtaking as even the most astonishing tape-measure home run. But you need I am but dust and ashes too—personified best by a weak-hitting utility infielder named “Chicken.” It’s a miracle we’re alive, yes, and it will all be over in a flash.

This all comes together in the person of Mickey Stanley. He was an outstanding centerfielder, like Mickey Mantle, but despite his four Gold Glove awards, and perhaps because of his more mediocre batting records, and perhaps even more because of the erasing tendencies of time, he has moved much closer to the anonymity of Fred Stanley than to the lasting renown of Mickey Mantle. His most famous moments on the field, in fact, had him not in sunny centerfield but at Fred Stanley’s jittery domain, shortstop, where Mickey Stanley was moved for the 1968 World Series to make room in the lineup for Al Kaline. He was a nervous wreck the whole time, hoping the ball wouldn’t be hit to him, that he wouldn’t make some huge mistake.

If my back gets better I’ll be a holy idiot again, waiting with arms outstretched to catch my beaming sons above me. I’ll be full of grateful love and worry.

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Willie McCovey

January 10, 2017

willie-mccovey

I believe in mistakes. I believe they will be made, and you can’t stop them, but more than that I believe they may even be the hand of God, though I’m not sure I believe in God.

I believe in gods. That is to say I believe in the feeling of connection to something more than this world. You feel it once in a while. I felt it in 1975, the year I started collecting cards, when I pulled this Willie McCovey card out of a wax pack. I may not have recognized the name from my budding study of the baseball encyclopedia, but even if I didn’t I would have realized I was holding something amazing in my hands when I turned the card over and saw that the card number ended in an even number—the sign of a superstar—and that the home run totals added up to a towering pillar of awe.

I believe even the gods will be humbled. It happened to Willie McCovey. Some would say it happened as a result of the mistake by the San Francisco Giants, who traded him away, leading to his appearance on this 1975 Topps offering, which my friend Pete calls the “You want fries with that?” card, a reference to the unsettling image of a god suddenly transfigured into fast-food serfdom, wrapped in the brown and yellow garb of the Padres, the team owned from 1974 to 1984 by the creator of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc. The first time McCovey played a home game for the Padres, on April 9, 1974, he committed an error on an attempted pick-off throw. It was the Padres’ third error of the game. The team’s new owner, who built his empire on a vision of sameness, of no mistakes, of a cheeseburger in Portland, Maine, tasting exactly like a cheeseburger in Portland, Oregon, took the public address microphone and yelled to the crowd (and at his players, and most directly, intentionally or not, at the player who had made the most recent mistake): “This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.”

I believe people want to be free. Just before Ray Kroc took the PA microphone, a streaker ran across the field. A streaker! Youngsters: time was you couldn’t cross the street without a naked ecstatic blurring past you. And now? Forget it. Now any intrusions on the field of play are—because of the armored context of these times—acts of violence. But streakers—how could they be violent? They have freed themselves of everything. Where have you gone, streakers?

I believe the urge for freedom, for the casting off of hierarchical uniformity, is met pretty harshly with in this world, either overtly or otherwise. Streakers, dreamers: how far do they ever get? “Throw him in jail” was actually the first thing Ray Kroc bellowed into the PA, meaning the streaker. He would later apologize for calling his players stupid but wouldn’t mention the streaker, who probably did get locked up. At any rate it’s a pretty sure bet that he’s not still out there somewhere, freely streaking.

I believe that when you run up against your limitations in this cruel hierarchical illusion of a world, you have to just try to keep going. When I was 32, a collection of debt and mistakes, I was lucky enough to get a job at a bookstore. I had no money and throbbing credit card, student loan, and tax debt. All the mistakes and some luck and the good word of my friend Pete, who was already working there, equaled me at the bookstore. I was glad to be there, making some money. One day I found myself looking across the floor of the store to one of the cashiers who had a streak of bright pink in her hair.

I believe you’re a shining star no matter who you are. Those words to live by, authored by Kool and the Gang Earth, Wind, and Fire, ushered into the world in 1975, the same year I got this Willie McCovey card. Many years later, the cashier with the bright pink streak in her hair screamed out our first boy, and then when she forgot that ordeal enough she did it again, and both times I held the new naked being in my arms. Both times I wondered how anyone could not know beyond any doubt that there is no such thing as original sin. How could anyone not know that we’re all born superstars, unique, singular mistakes straight from heaven?

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Mike Hargrove

January 3, 2017

mike-hargrove

The Human Rain Delay was first captured in cardboard in this 1975 Topps offering. He’s not mentioned as such anywhere on the card. I’m guessing this nickname wasn’t yet in existence but rather gathered momentum gradually as the player’s approach in the batter’s box became more familiar to everyone. Obviously someone had to first coin the term at a particular moment in time, but the coining surely came after an accrual of moments over the years, everyone becoming more aggrieved by Hargrove’s deliberate batting box routine, the touching of this and the tugging of that, everyone finding themselves wishing, with growing exasperation, that he just get on with it, but Hargrove himself holding fast to the conviction that this is the one and only moment there is. What’s the rush?

***

The other night I woke up from sleep and looked straight into death. There’s some kind of a chemical in your brain that keeps you from staring straight into death most of the time, but it’s in short supply in the middle of the night. Every so often throughout my whole life, all the way back to when I was the kid first looking at these cards, I’ve woken to the unmitigated reality that in a short while this will be gone forever. There’s nothing to be done to ward it off.

***

I never liked Superman. Have I ever mentioned that? Probably. I’ve mentioned everything at least once in this ongoing attempt to ward off with words what can’t be warded off. I don’t get the appeal, honestly. He’s impervious to everything and can do anything. The whole scenario seems to be without any frailty, a fascist daydream of inhuman invulnerability. Give me instead the Human Rain Delay. Now there’s a superhero I could get behind. He’d be a somewhat somber, cerebral cousin of the Storms, that brother-sister duo forming half of the Fantastic Four, the combination of the mortal world and the elements in his name similar to The Human Torch, and his dubious collection of relatively flimsy “superpowers” most closest in the superhero world to Sue, the “Invisible Girl,” who—presumably due to her origin in the mind of a fantasizing misogynist—didn’t possess any strength or the ability to shoot fire or lasers or harm any man in any way but could turn invisible and create invisible shields and cushions for the fellows should they be, say, blasted out of the sky by Dr. Doom. He probably would never rate his own series but might get called into the fray occasionally and in marginal ways during the sprawling ongoing saga of the Marvel foursome as they continually faced down total global annihilation. His only power would be to cause some minor annoyances. He’d have, I don’t know, keen eyesight, good judgment. He and the Thing would have some kind of a running dialogue, the latter always wanting to roll into calamitous action with his trademark bellow, “It’s clobbering time!” and his rock-hands balled into building-crushing fists, and The Human Rain Delay, on the other hand, quietly but in an enervating adenoidal monotone, advocating patience. Ultimately, his counsel would be ignored, and his modest collection of tics and mannerisms, his so-called powers, would prove as irrelevant as words in the seemingly unstoppable wave of destruction hurtling toward the Fantastic Four and by extension all of humanity. But maybe for a little while he could sort of slow things down a little.

***

A few days before I woke up and stared straight into death, I went down a hill backwards on a sled. It was Christmas Day. I’d been going down a hill in a blue plastic sled with my older son, Jack, for an hour or two, him in front and me in the back. My other son and my wife and her family were back at my wife’s parents’ house.

“It’s getting to be time to go,” I said. “One more.”

“Seven more,” Jack said. He’s five. He never wants anything to end.

“How about two more?”

We haggled for a while, finally settling on four, with the requirement, per Jack, that each one be “crazy.” We went down the hill with me lying down on my stomach and him on top of me; with our eyes closed; on our knees; and, finally, backwards. The last one was my favorite. The laughs whooped up out of me like they haven’t since childhood, and then I was in a snowy heap, and then I was staring into my son’s beaming, laughing face. Time stopped.

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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.