h1

Dave Hilton

October 18, 2016

dave-hiltonCalifornia Sun

I.

I once had a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. I was out in California to do some readings and signings for Cardboard Gods. I drove over in a rental car from Pasadena, where my wife and I were staying, to Culver City. Afraid I was going to get lost and be late, I got to the studio very early and wandered around a little. I got a green tea at a Starbucks on the lot, or whatever it’s called, and peered around in vain for people I’d seen on television and got more nervous. I felt tired and nauseous and burned my tongue on the tea.

Dave Hilton never played for the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, in 1977, the year this card appeared, he was in the organization of the Blue Jays’ 2016 ALCS opponent, the Cleveland Indians, though he never appeared in a major league game for the Indians either. The 1977 Blue Jays—the first edition of the team, with a roster built with expansion draftees and other even more marginal odds and ends, such as Dave Hilton, who was purchased, along with one of a small but baffling series of fellows in baseball history named Dave Roberts, from the Padres—were like this, a collection of phantoms and rumors, as if their main purpose was to illustrate the more mysterious properties of the word expansion. Hilton somehow carried some of this mystery with him beyond 1977 and beyond the Blue Jays and across the ocean to Japan, where he played a role in the launching of the literary career of Haruki Murakami, who once reflected in a New Yorker essay on this turning point in his life:

The crack of bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.

Marukami went on, of course, to write a lot of great books, I guess. I’ve always meant to give them a whirl but haven’t gotten to it yet. Most of us have these things we mean to do. In the end, what’s it all going to mean? We’re passing through, registering in a soft wash of blue for a moment before disappearing without much left behind to mark that we were ever here.

On the Sony lot, when it was time, I rose and tossed my cup in a garbage bin and moved in the direction of a building that housed the office where my meeting was scheduled. It was the office of a person whose name appeared in shows I’d seen, one of those names that came right before the beginning of the story. Was I moving toward something? Was my name going to be one of those names? Was my story about to begin? The sun was shining, the California sun, and I was wondering if I’d later talk about this day as if it were a turning point, when the sky cracked open and I was grabbed by the collar and led into some permanent golden light.

To be continued.

h1

Dustin Pedroia

October 11, 2016

dustin-pedroia-2012Jack was holding his bat in one hand and looking toward one of the corners of our carpeted basement. I stood a few feet away, ready to start lobbing him underhand pitches. Jack usually can’t wait to start rocketing line drives all over the room.

“Laser Show!” he says sometimes as the line drives are flying. Jack has his own little shoebox full of cards now. This 2012 card of the original Laser Show is the first card Jack wanted as his own, the beginning of his collection.

It turns out Dustin Pedroia was on his mind yesterday as he gazed into the corner. I could tell a question was forming. Jack asks a lot of questions. He asks about animals, planets, food, numbers, himself, me, his mother, his brother, injuries, death, measurements, baseball, the meaning of words, the meaning of the world. He asks, nearly as constantly as he breathes, why.

Why? Why not? Why? Why not?

I never know, not really.

I looked down at the foam Boston Red Sox softball in my hands. The ball had some chunks taken out of it, courtesy of Jack’s younger brother, Exley. Jack turned to me.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Is Dustin Pedroia afraid of spiders?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. Lately I’d been wondering about all of Jack’s questions and my inability to answer them. I needed to start reaching beyond my limited knowledge somehow. “Maybe we can write him a letter and ask him.”

Later that day, Jack asked, “What does Dustin Pedroia like better? Dustin? Pedroia? Or Laser Show?”

I took my best guess on that one, and Jack started pressing the tip of a red magic marker to a piece of paper. He writes big letters and when he runs out of space on a line he just goes to the next line.

LASE
RSHO
W

This was all that was going to fit on this page. I’d suggested Jack write “Dear Laser Show,” but Jack, already averse to sentiment except in relation to his mother, told me he wasn’t going to write “Dear.” On the other side he drew a baseball player. He started drawing baseball players a while ago, at no one’s prompting. One day I came home from work and he gave a picture to me. He’d never given me a picture before. He’d given my wife all sorts of pictures of hearts and rainbows and the like.

“That’s Mookie Betts,” Jack said that day. It made me want to cry.

“This one looks more like an alien,” he said now. There wasn’t much room left on the page, certainly not enough for more of Jack’s big letters, so I asked Jack to dictate to me the question we were asking. I wrote it down to the right of the alien:

Are you afraid of spiders?

Jack then drew a tarantula at the alien’s feet as I Googled Dustin Pedroia’s address. I came up with something in Arizona. When I was a kid, I’d written to Carl Yastrzemski in care of the Red Sox and had never heard back, so I figured it was worth trying a different approach and wrote the Arizona address on an envelope. Jack put on the stamp.

It had occurred to me not long after Jack asked it that his question had an ironic twist to it, in that Dustin Pedroia was later that night facing elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, a franchise that began in 1901, two years after the disbandment of the city’s previous major league team, the Cleveland Spiders, who were also sometimes known as the Indians because of the presence on the team of a member of the Penobscot tribe, Louis Sockalexis.

This was all happening on Columbus Day, of course, so I had the day off. Jack didn’t ask why I had the day off, as he sometimes does on holidays, but when he does someday I will tell him what I know about Columbus, most of my knowledge coming from the Bugs Bunny offering “Hare We Go.” I’ll probably also tell him that not everybody is such a big fan of Columbus or of there being a day to celebrate him.

Why not?

Well, I’ll say, there were other people living here first before Columbus came from across the ocean, and he said the following of them (and acted upon this sentiment, in both word and deed symbolically if not actually setting in motion the annihilation of the native inhabitants of this continent):

“With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

What does subjugate mean?

I’ll tell him what subjugate means, which will prompt more questions, and on and on we’ll go, eventually, the whole bloody mess of his world slowly, clumsily rising into view. How does anyone ever even get out of bed? Forget spiders: human history is made up of one long unbroken log of horrific subjugation. Jack already has some inclination of this, thanks to the U-Boat on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Every few days he asks why “the mean guy from the U-Boat” (we go with this construction without clarifying things for him because neither my wife nor I want to hear the name Hitler spilling out of Jack’s mouth on a daily basis) tried to take over everything, and how he forced people to do what he wanted, and if we’re glad he’s dead.

But Jack didn’t ask about any of this yesterday. It turns out he had a fever. The night before, tossing and turning with a sore throat, he had a nightmare about “No Noggin,” a figure from a Curious George Halloween cartoon.

“No Noggin was tearing me to pieces,” Jack said as we were sitting on the couch. It was nighttime, after he’s usually asleep, but he’d dropped into a nap earlier in the day because of the fever, so he was wide awake now. I had an earbud in my ear, listening to the Red Sox game as they tried to stave off elimination at the hands of the Indians.

I’d started following baseball when I was just a little older than Jack and not that long after I began having night terrors. Nothing has ever been scarier to me than those night terrors, which are beyond nightmares. When Jack is frightened in the middle of the night I want to protect him from crossing over from seeing scary images inside his head to seeing the whole real world looking infinitely wrong, which is how it was for me with the night terrors. For me, baseball was something to hold onto in the face of that terrifying chaos.

“Mommy and Daddy are here for you,” I said. “Also, No Noggin isn’t real.”

Neither of these statements had any impact. They felt flimsy coming out of my mouth. What can you do to help someone who is scared? Well, there’s always baseball.

“Dustin Pedroia is coming up,” I told Jack.

I took the earbuds out of my phone and we listened together to his ninth-inning at-bat. If he made an out, the season would be over. He battled his way on base with a walk, which pushed the tying run to second base. Jack has asked enough questions about baseball to know that this is a good thing. The inning and the season and Big Papi’s career ended shortly thereafter. I turned off the radio and recapped these events. Jack had more questions.

“Why is he called ‘Big Papi’?”

“Papi is Spanish for Daddy,” I said.

“Why is he Daddy?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, hesitating because any answer would seem like I was glorifying the idea of a father. What is a daddy anyway? There’s no end to these questions.

“Well, he’s there for the whole team. He’s someone they could count on.” Just like when I got the Mookie Betts magic marker portrait, I felt like I was going to cry. As for Jack, he was in fine spirits, despite the fever. Dustin Pedroia had done something good!

“Dustin Pedroia scored a walk, right?” he asked. I nodded. Jack raised his arms and cheered.

Jack’s letter to his favorite player, with its scrawled lettering and oblong alien portraiture and tarantula and single, ominous-sounding question, is now on its way to what may or may not be Dustin Pedroia’s address. I can’t imagine the letter getting a reply. I told Jack I never heard back from Carl Yastrzemski. What exactly was I trying to say?

Son, you will be disappointed by life.

“But if he doesn’t write back we won’t know if he’s afraid of spiders,” Jack said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Do you think he’s afraid of spiders?”

“No,” Jack said. I then took a turn with one of his favorites:

“Why not?”

“He’s brave.”

“I’m brave,” my spider-fearing wife pointed out from across the room.

“Yeah, Mommy’s brave,” I agreed. Watching someone give birth to a child gives you some perspective on the concept of bravery. At some point earlier in the day Jack had asked who the first person to ever see him was. I was the first person to see him. Maybe a doctor or nurse spotted some wet protrusion of his head before I did, but I was the first to see him completely, with joy and terror, with love.

With questions.

Who knows the answer, or even if an answer will ever come?

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” I said.

h1

Last Hurrahs

October 4, 2016

20160930_203117

How do things end? This is still in question for David Ortiz, who is set to get at least a few more at-bats in the playoffs. His final regular season at-bat is now a matter of historical record, at least, a meek squibber up the first-base line, for Big Papi a rare intimation of baseball mortality in a season that may stand as the best final season in baseball history. So that’s how it ended for him, a little ground ball, a roaring ovation.

I already compared that last at-bat with the most memorable final at-bat of my life, Yaz’s final turn, but what I left out of the memory of Yaz was his final moments on the field, after the at-bat, when he took a lap around Fenway, touching as many hands as he could. I cried when he did that. I’ve talked about Yaz’s final day before—why do I leave that part out? No ending will ever top that for me, no matter what happens with Big Papi in the playoffs.

How does it end for the rest of us? At some point it’ll end for me and the box of cards shown above that contains my childhood, at least in my eyes, will become someone else’s possession, devoid of the memories, cardboard without the gods.

This is may or may not be relevant, but yesterday, thinking about all my Octobers and about October itself, the favorite month of Jack Kerouac, I wondered whether Jack Kerouac watched the 1969 World Series, the crowning moment of the Miracle Mets. He was a couple of weeks away from dying at the age of 47. I’m a year older than he ever got, and yet still his unwanted dufus apprentice! He ended in Florida living with his wife and mother and drinking a lot and watching TV. He had a terrible liver from all the drinking and an untreated hernia and had gotten beaten up in a bar fight a few days earlier and had a head stuffed no longer with visions but rather with angered ranting, about communists, hippies, Jews. According to a recent Boston Globe article by James Sullivan about Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, Kerouac had $91 to his name at the end. So that’s kind of how his last at-bat went, and maybe why I want to imagine him marveling at the Mets in his last October.

Most final at-bats don’t come in October. This has to be true because most games occur before that time, but it’s also supported by some research on my part, if this type of thing can be called research. I don’t so much research things as look for ways to escape the inevitable. This latest attempt was built around the conceit of last at-bats for Red Sox standouts at every position who actually had their last at-bats as a member of the team. I had to leave out many players who drifted away from the team at the end and had to be lenient with some position assignments (e.g., Williams shifting over to right, where he played for a while as a youngster).

Anyway, the list:

  • Catcher: Jason Varitek singled in the go-ahead run in a late September win against the Yankees as the Red Sox attempted (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to stave off the worst final-month collapse in baseball history.
  • 1B: Yaz popped out to second base in October.
  • 2B: Bobby Doerr grounded out to short in early September. In the following inning, Doerr, who had been suffering from a bad back, was taken out of the game after completing the pivot in a 6-4-3 double play. This might be, all things considered, the second best final moment noted here, next to only the one below that was immortalized by John Updike: the second-baseman who died with his boots on, or rather his cleats high.
  • SS: Speaking of injuries, Joe Cronin reached on an error by the opposing second baseman in April. He broke his leg on the following play and had to be removed (by himself—he was the player/manager) for a pinch-runner.
  • 3B: Rico Petrocelli drew a walk in a September loss.
  • LF: Jim Rice flied out to deep right-center field in an August loss. He was replaced before his next at-bat by Randy Kutcher. Randy Kutcher? I can’t find out why this happened, but Rice’s last years were injury-riddled. He may have tweaked something and then never made it back.
  • CF: Dom Dimaggio popped out in a May loss.
  • RF: Ted Williams homered in September (attendance: 10,454).
  • DH: David Ortiz grounded out, in October, 2-3 if you’re scoring from home, like a failed attempt to reach base by a bunt.

Only Yaz, Ortiz, and Williams had moments of knowing goodbye. Everybody else was like the rest of us, never really knowing when it will be over, or when it already is.

 

h1

David Ortiz

October 3, 2016

david-ortiz

I remember watching Yaz’s last regular-season at-bat. The Red Sox were bad that year, most of the superstars from my childhood gone. There weren’t going to be any postseason at-bats. I watched the game alone in a TV room at a boarding school that I’d be expelled from the following year. I’d started attending the boarding school a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t had any particular desire to go to the school but had gone because my brother had gone there before me, and I was in the habit of doing what he did. Also, to send me to the school, my mother was willing to go into debt that would take years to go away. Probably she was concerned that I’d gone from a bubbly little boy who loved learning to a sullen teenager accruing shitty report cards.

Things can change. You can be a boy running on superstar feet up the road to get to school like he’s sprinting up the first-base line, and then all the superstars can leave. In Yaz’s last at bat I wanted Yaz to hit the ball five hundred feet, a thousand feet, so far it would never be seen again, the stories about it going on forever. He popped out to the infield. The game ended. It was Sunday, still the afternoon but getting dark already. I had trigonometry homework to do. Thirty-three years later, it’s still undone.

***

Things can change.

David Ortiz said those words twelve Octobers ago. I was thirty-six and a few months into a new life in a new city. The Red Sox were losing to the Yankees. They’d lost to the Yankees the year before, as painful a loss as any of them, and that’s saying something. The Red Sox had always been losing to the Yankees. I knew from experience that things can change in one direction, but I didn’t really believe they could change in the other direction.

Still, I watched the games, every one of them, every inning, even the last innings of the savage beating that put the Red Sox in a 3-0 hole. The next game went late into the night, as everyone knows. I watched the last innings of that one alone, my girlfriend, Abby, asleep in the next room. We’d moved to Chicago to take a stab at a life together. This is a scary step to take, especially if you’re in the habit of believing that things can change, but only for the worse.

So when David Ortiz hit that home run, a feeling coursed through me that was just about as powerful as anything I’d ever felt. The Red Sox were still down three games to one, and I was still the same person weighted down by reams of gray trigonometry homework of one shape or another, everything so far squandered, undone. But still: there was life. I ran around my apartment on superstar feet.

We’re alive, I said. I didn’t say it out loud because Abby, who I was in love with, who was becoming my life, was asleep and had to get up early to go to her job at a group home for wards of the state. I said it with every fiber of my body, believing it, thinking about everyone I knew and loved as David Ortiz disappeared into a scrum of ecstatic bodies at home plate.

We’re alive.

***

Yesterday, I watched David Ortiz’s last regular season at-bat in a scrum of my two young boys, Jack and Exley. We were sitting on the floor in our carpeted basement, and I had a tiny version of the game on my phone. My wife, Abby, was at the grocery store.

“When is Big Papi going to bat?” Jack asked. He’s the five-year-old.

“Whack!” said Exley, Jack’s little brother, two. This is his word for baseball.

“He’ll be up soon,” I said.

“Is Dustin Pedroia going to bat?” Jack said.

“Well, he batted last inning, so he prob—whoa!”

I can’t remember which of the boys went flying at that point. Do you have an image in your mind of Andre the Giant when he wrestled a couple of guys at once? This is analogous to the standard mode of behavior for the three of us, especially when we’re on the carpet. Two smaller people hurling themselves at the bigger person. Bodies are always sailing through the air. Forget any semblance of coherence to a conversation.

“Why does space go on and on and on?” Jack asked when the flurry of flying tackles and somersaults next hit something like a pause.

“OK, I’m watching this,” I said, because David Ortiz was coming to bat for the last time. I stood up and showed Jack the phone, but he was now more interested in trying to shove a large beach ball up under his shirt. Exley wanted to do the same because he’s already in the habit of doing whatever his older brother does, but he had previously taken off his shirt, so he began whining for his shirt in the manner in which he generally makes demands of the world.

“Me,” he said. “Me!”

“Does it go to infinity?” Jack asked.

“What?” I said. “Yeah infinity Exley Exley Exley your shirt is upstairs hold on.”

Me!

“I don’t want it to go to infinity,” Jack said, his voice also leaning toward tears.

“Just hold on a sec,” I said, the words I say these days more than any others. I was already being pulled back to my life, and in a moment I’d be running up the stairs to get a shirt so Exley could shove a ball under it while also telling Jack that I didn’t like infinity either, infinity sucked, I’d be saying, and there would be tears anyway and then more wrestling and laughing and bang someone’s head knocking into a wall and more tears and on and on, things always changing, changing, the very pulse of life, onward, always onward, but out of the corner of my eye before life surged ahead I saw on a tiny screen David Ortiz hit the ball maybe twenty feet, surely one of the shortest journeys into fair territory of any ball off his bat, I saw this with the eyes of this life I’ve been blessed with, my we’re alive eyes, my eyes of gratitude and love, saw it as if it were the first batted ball of a boy just starting out, everything still in front of him, and this boy will race toward first on superstar feet.

h1

Failures Anonymous

June 17, 2016

Josh little leagueThanks to everyone who responded to my attempt to give away some copies of my latest book. Several people were kind enough to leave some good words about my previous book, Cardboard Gods, on Amazon. If you’re one of the heroic review-posters, please drop me a line if you haven’t done so already so that I can burden you with a copy of Benchwarmer.

A few brave fellows responded to my call for stories to failure. These pleased me to no end, and in hopes that you’ll be able to experience, as I did, the cumulative effect of having multiple stories of losing wash over you, I’m posting excerpts below in the manner of support group anonymity. I like to imagine that we’re all in this together, telling our tales of woe.

The first excerpt below is not a story but strikes me as a perfect opening note to our failures anonymous meeting. The other stories are all in the general vicinity, age-wise, of the picture shown here (me on deck, circa 1979 or thereabouts).

Ryan C.:
There’s failure, and then there’s failure. People tend to focus more on the latter, the spectacular demonstration that a person’s skills fled at the most inopportune moment, or maybe that the person never really had the required skills in the first place. But the former seems more like the kind you draw a narrative from and that you highlight from your own life. It’s that kind of failure that isn’t going to make any highlight reels, that doesn’t exactly surprise anyone, and that quietly reminds us that we’re all getting older, farther and farther from the days when would could have deluded ourselves into expectations of success, maybe even had the talent to achieve that success. Then there’s the one moment we have to realize it’s slipped away, and we’ve become Uncle Rico.
Robert B.:
It was probably my 5th game as a starter, and things went wrong big time. A few balls turned into several more. After walking a couple guys, true panic set in, and each pitch, though aimed with increasing tension and frustration, continued to miss the mark.  It slowly turned into the meltdown and end of a future major league strikeout king.  After walking something like 7 or 8 batters without a single strike, my father, our coach, mercifully pulled me.  The experience was so scarring and terrifying that I never asked to be on the mound again after that; my career as a pitcher was over. I also played catcher and outfield to some small degree of success that season, but mentally I had quit the game. I was just too young and immature to understand that those failures are what make one great and separate; had someone adequately explained that all the best players went through something similar, and with more maturity, I might have surmounted it.

 

Seth R.:
My final game was only a few weeks into the season. I had tripled and was waiting on 3rd with nobody out. The pitcher threw a wild pitch that went to the backstop, so I bolted down the line hoping to score. The catcher raced back to recover the ball, grabbed it, and came up ready to throw to the pitcher covering the plate. So in that instant I decided to drop down into a feet-first slide. However, as I was dropping, the catcher lowered his arm, having decided that there was no chance to throw me out. Therefore, I decided not to slide, and I tried to stop my slide by planting my right foot into the ground and stand back up. My foot got caught, because there was no stopping gravity, and was pulled underneath the full weight of my body, twisting backward and making a loud cracking sound as I “slid” across the plate. I rested there, on the plate, looking up into the eyes of the umpire, who slowly spread his arms wide, signaling that I was, indeed, safe. The look on his face was one of confusion, whereas the look on my face was one of desperation, as I tried to speak to him, to tell him what had just happened, but I was incapable of speech. I sat there for what seemed like a few minutes, until my coach jogged out onto the field and helped me limp into the dugout.

 

David D.:
Just as people remember the questions they get wrong on a quiz, not those they answer correctly, I recall only one batter I faced that afternoon. (Should I ever forget, I have the home movie to jog my memory.) The hitter was large, one of those “he can’t possibly be 12 years old” boys who shows up in every kids’ league, though never on your team. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he didn’t have to move forward in the batter’s box to crowd the plate.

Being smarter than I was skilled, I kept my first few pitches outside, missing the plate with a couple, catching the corner with a couple more. Each time, the batter leaned a little further over the plate, until he resembled a pre-teen with lumbago. The thought entered my head that if I could put a fastball on the inside corner, he’d never get around on it.

It was a good idea, but my pitch was less a fastball than a get-there-eventually-ball. It took long enough to arrive that Paul Bunyan had time to size it up, step so far into the bucket that he was practically facing me, and crush the ball to dead center: over the fence, over the dirt road, over the embankment . . . and over all 10 lanes of the freeway. He circled the bases to the delighted shrieks of his teammates, while I stared north, trying to determine how long it would take me to walk as far as he’d just hit the ball, and resisting the temptation to abandon the pitcher’s mound and try it. And my father caught every ignominious moment on film.

h1

Calling All Benchwarmers

May 19, 2016

basketball card frontHere are some things I must tell you:

  1. I wrote an encyclopedia of sports failure.
  2. It’s also a memoir and enabled me to process becoming a father, which has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and also caused me to lose my marbles.
  3. It’s called Benchwarmer.
  4. It makes a great gift for fathers; sports fans; fans of anecdotes about fellows who warmed the bench for forlornly inept northern New England NAIA basketball squads; aficionados of tales involving the ghostly facsimile of Calvin Schiraldi as some sort of oblique harbinger of encroaching insanity; nickname buffs who might be pleased by an inordinate amount of text given over to early NFL nonentity Walter “Sneeze” Achiu; or people who like things organized alphabetically.
  5. It’s available at book stores, theoretically, and also via the magic of online shopping.
  6. I had night terrors as a child.
  7. Sometimes I would halfway wake up and feel myself on the border of these night terrors. Usually this would be followed by the night terrors. But occasionally I was able to ward them off by reading copies of Sports Illustrated.
  8. Years later, Sports Illustrated said that my encyclopedia of failure was “funny, enchanting and lyrical. Painfully familiar.”
  9. Between now and Father’s Day, I will be giving a limited amount of free copies away, which I will sign and personalize to whatever extent you would enjoy such a magnificently generous service.
  10. I will not give them away arbitrarily, which would only support the disquieting notion that ours is a wholly random universe, bereft of the comfort of order, upon which all religions of the world are built.
  11. Instead, I will require that you follow one of two paths, which will be active routes to a copy of my book as long as supplies last:
    1. If you are perhaps a fan of my earlier book Cardboard Gods, you could express your appreciation in the form of an online review at this obscure website. There is some urban lore that fifty reviews of a book will put in motion secret inexorable processes on the website in question that will lift the book far above the infinite sea of luckless books with fewer than fifty reviews and thus catapult the author of said book to certain riches and fame beyond his wildest dreams. As of this writing, the book is on the cusp of this transcendent plateau with 49 reviews, most of them favorable, although there are also a couple of one-star stinkers that really hurt my feelings.
    2. If you would rather not enable this ethically dubious groveling for online reviews, you may also enter the running for a free book by trading me a story for it, specifically a story about sports failure. Please make it the worst sports failure you ever participated in, either as an athlete yourself or as a fan. I will send you a book and, if you’re willing, post your story on this site. If you prefer this route, please see my contact info in the sidebar of this site, right near the threatening words flung at me by Don Stanhouse.
h1

Tom Wilhelmsen

May 9, 2016

Tom WilhemsonWhat do you follow?

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:

 

Tom Wilhemson back

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.