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Beyond the Blue Horizon

I once leaned my head on a public restroom wall. The wool/poly blend of a New Era cap acted as a shield, but still. I had been standing over a urinal in the men’s restroom of the Piccadilly Pub in Franklin, and as the reality of the 19-8 defeat at the hands of the Yankees tumbled over me like so many bricks, I kind of slowly leaned forward and my forehead gently met the wall in front of me. I think it was plaster, not tile, but don’t hold me to that.

This is just not meant to be, I told myself. Probably because of something I did.

Because it was personal, of course. How could it be any other way? The Sox, they had my name. They knew who I was. My Social Security number was on file somewhere in the bowels of their offices, a microchip had been implanted in the skin under my forearm, surely all of this was One Big Middle Finger to me and my existence, some sort of moral judgment on my activities to this point. I had not led a good enough life yet. I didn’t deserve any sort of baseball happiness. All their postseason foibles were an attack on me, nobody else. Red Sox Nation? Pfft, what do they know? This is all on me. They’re doing this to screw with ME. For my sins, my failings, my decayed humanity. Me.

So I leaned my head on a public restroom wall. Not something I’d advise doing, generally, even at a place as genteel as a suburban Piccadilly Pub.

It was just not meant to be.

Going into the evening the Yanks were up 2 games to none, but the Sox were back at Fenway and a win would make it a series again. It was a see-saw battle for 3 innings, then the Yankees became extremely rude guests and ran away with things, to the point where one might find themselves leaning against a filmy bathroom wall and wondering what was the point of it all was.

Grady Little had horrifically botched things the year before, clutching defeat from the jaws of victory against these very Yankees at the most crucial moment possible, a rug-pull played on those Sox fans who truly believed the team’s accursed past was simply due to random bad luck. Or bad management. Or personnel failings.

This indignity, this Grady, this Boone, piled on top of Buckner and Dent and Jim Burton and Armbrister and Ruhle and Aparicio and Jack Hamilton and Enos Slaughter. There were generations of men from the corners of New England and all points in between who were sick to their stomachs and looking at themselves in bathroom mirrors wondering why it ever had to be this way. Why? Why?

The Yankees had beaten the Red Sox 19-8, taking a 3-0 lead in the 2004 American League Championship Series. There would be no World Series for the Sox that year, no redemption for those left prostrate by Grady Little’s idiocy the year before. Baseball does not do karma. The game is its own reward, win or lose. A harsh but needed lesson, brutal in its finality.

I separated my forehead from the wall, exited the bathroom, and left the restaurant sometime after midnight on Sunday, October 17, 2004.

Sabbatical

On Saturday I noticed my drawing table had gathered cobwebs. That’s not metaphorical, nor an embellishment. It was real enough that I got a vacuum cleaner and waved at them half-heartedly. There were even some rogue strands that had made the leap to my chair.

I’ve been struggling to determine how or why activities or hobbies get back-burnered or mothballed. It’s not unique, or even unexpected. People garden, and then they don’t. Needlepoint sits idle in a drawer, golf clubs slowly rust in a darkened corner of the garage. Hell, I didn’t so much as pick up a humble pencil with any artistic purpose for almost all of the ’90s. I’ve been there before.

I think it’s like having kids. You love them and are proud of them, but sometimes you’d just like to abdicate your parental responsibilities and simply forget they exist, even as they woozily cry for their insulin.

On Patriots Day

To explain it to those of you not from New England, Patriots Day commemorates the first shots fired of the American Revolution. The battle took place on Lexington Green. The holiday celebrates the initial step of this country’s independence (given its significance, it’s beyond me why it’s observed only in Massachusetts), but with the century-old introduction of the Boston Marathon and the advent of morning baseball at Fenway, it has come to mean much more, all while still symbolizing the spirit of the holiday.

Patriots Day in Boston heralds the debut of spring, the first extended hello to longer days and warmer climes, pitched against the backdrop of live music and pre-noon beers and tailgate smoke. The improbable angle of the sun that renders strange the familiar confines of Fenway, as if seeing them for the first time. And the hamlets and towns and cities along the marathon route who turn out in force to ceaselessly support runners from all over the world, these competitors whose quest is to test the very limits of themselves as the crowd claps and shouts itself hoarse for hours on end in recognition. At times giving them the strength to keep going. Every last one.

The spectators come to witness and celebrate the very best that humans can endeavor to achieve, this challenging of the self (often done in the name of charity or in the memory of the dearly departed); and they do it to provide the psychic energy that may be required for a lot of these runners to be able to finish. And to feed off that incredible strength of will in return. Ask any marathoner or attendee. Boston is different.

I don’t know who did this. I don’t know if Patriots Day was chosen for its symbolism or simply because the finish line provided the greatest concentration of human targets. But I do know this: on Patriots Day, this town simultaneously gives and receives the best that humanity has to offer, and no single madman can silence or defeat this inherent goodness that we are all privileged to share with one another.

Exit the Warrior

Hiding behind the double-knits, cored-out earflap and lazy wrist twirl was the harsh reality that man is mortal and everything is going to end.

Carl Yastrzemski’s immediate predecessor, Ted Williams, lived some kind of charmed life where he could accomplish whatever he wanted to through the sheer force of being Ted. He was a 6’ 3” live wire, a bulldog Picasso or Hemingway with a bat. Yaz? He was you or me, some guy who wouldn’t get two glances on the street, but was somehow able to push himself to the very limits of what he could do and live out there in that ether for 23 years. If Ted Williams was Superman, some freakish alien life form given powers by the yellow sun, then Carl Yastrzemski was Batman, a human residing on the edge of his own capabilities because that is what he was driven to do. Williams left us by hitting a home run in his last at-bat, still lifting that car as effortlessly as he did on the cover of Action Comics #1. Yaz, on the other hand, bore the visible scars of battle, ones dealt not only by foes on the diamond but by time itself. And because of this we identified with him all the more.

I was 12 when Yaz’s Batman avatar began to pixelate and break down, revealing its ugly underneath, a marker of the passage of time. Here he was during the summer and early autumn of 1983, playing out his last season and leaving me to wonder what rooting for the Red Sox would be like without him. At that age, my fanhood was based solely on the identification with the players. The laundry hadn’t really come into focus yet because the turnover rate in my short window of rooting for the Sox was minimal; I was too young and disconnected to feel the pain of Tiant and Lee leaving, and merely impotently aware of Lynn’s and Fisk’s departures. At the same time, I was a virgin to the delicious thrill of a pennant race (I was only 7 in 1978 and couldn’t appreciate the story being spun out of that season at the time). What else was there but to root for this man who had embodied not only being a Red Sox, but also represented the honor bestowed in the fight itself, as opposed to the outcome? The funny thing is that for all my anxiety over Yaz’s impending retirement, it wasn’t like I was seeing anything remotely resembling his prime, as if I knew what I’d be missing. It’s just that he had Always Been There. Not just for me, but for my father. Particularly for my father. This worrying about my father’s feelings about any outside developments whatsoever was a shaky new concept. He was a sophomore in high school the spring that Yastrzemski made his debut, for Chrissakes, surely some bell must have been tolling in his consciousness. And if #8 was getting too old to hack it, then maybe so was my Dad, and then so would I at some point down the road. These aren’t things you want to think about when you’re 12.

Yaz occupies a curious spot in the Red Sox pantheon. A first ballot Hall of Famer who may have been an accumulator more than anything else. Owner of a Triple Crown and a multiple Gold Glove winner, but a reclusive and somewhat aloof person who did little off the field to endear himself to the fandom. Very few kids my age even liked him during his playing days, as they thought he was some old fart whose presence was somewhat comical in contrast to that of Lynn and Rice, and later on, Evans. You look at some of his years and it’s not surprising, these sentiments: .254 with 15 home runs in 1971? .264 with 12 home runs in 1972? His renaissance perhaps coincided with the position change to first base, or with the rising fortunes of the team after its post ’67 doldrums, but as the ’70s progressed he became cagey veteran. Mortal or not, no man was more fearless and determined once he put on that uniform. He was the original Dirt Dog.

The Yaz story that most defines him for me is one from the last-gasp winning streak at the end of the ’78 season which ultimately forced a one game playoff with the Yankees. On Sunday, September 24th, one game into said winning streak, the Sox had forced the Blue Jays into extra innings at Exhibition Stadium. Balor Moore had been pitching for 2+ innings, and in the top of the 12th Moore struck out Rice to bring Yastrzemski to the plate. Moore got a little cute and sailed a fastball up and in on Yaz, who sprawled to the ground to avoid being hit. He got up, slowly collecting himself, and stood in the batter’s box awaiting the next pitch, which he promptly launched for a triple. Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield yanked Moore from the game, and once they got to the dugout he dressed him down: “Pitching to Yaz is like being in a gunfight, only if you miss with yours, he never misses with his.”

Yet for all of that, he never won a ring, and to add insult to injury, he made the last outs of the ’75 and ’78 seasons, both with the Sox behind by a mere run (and in the case of ’78, with Remy on third).

The Kid had the same “didn’t win it all” collar around his neck (and had lesser numbers in what would be considered the “clutch” times during his career), but he is not cast in the same light. To me, Ted was Zeus, hurling lightning bolts from on high. Yaz? He was Sisyphus. I learned about the myth of Sisyphus in 11th grade English and I immediately thought of Yaz. Then I extrapolated it out to simply being a Red Sox fan. But then again, none of us were actually rolling that rock up the hill. Yaz was.

In John Updike’s famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” he sums up Ted quite nicely as he observed that Ted didn’t tip his cap after his career-ending clout, despite the impassioned pleas of the few thousand who were in the stands that day: “Gods do not answer letters.”

On the other hand, Yaz took a lap around Fenway Park the day before his last game, exchanging high-fives and handshakes with anyone lucky enough to be sitting in the first few rows. A far more stoic man than Ted ever was, he nonetheless placed himself into the open palms of Boston and said, “This is what I can offer you as thanks.” On his last day, as he walked off the field for one last time after being pulled during the top of the 9th, he unbuttoned his jersey and gave it to a boy in the front row behind the dugout before he descended down the steps for good. Carl Yastrzemski was not Superman or Zeus. But he showed us that a man battling against that which limits him — whether it was his own physical attributes or the unyielding opponent of time itself — is as compelling as any myth, while displaying far more honor.

We Have Lingered in the Chambers of the Sea

The polyester double-knit Red Sox uniforms of the ’70s debuted shortly after the second Watergate break-in. They were antithetical to the tradition synonymous with Boston, but everybody else was doing it. The blow-dried Disco Strangler ethos of the decade was just beginning to take hold, bringing its synthetic fabrics with it, much as the character-filled Scollay Square had given way to the concrete brutalism of Government Center. The Red Sox were being swept asunder by baseball’s version of urban renewal.

So yes. Doorlatches were taped at the Democratic National Committee and the Sox began wearing V-necks and pants with elastic waistbands. Duane Josephson was one of the CREEP burglars. He was caught and he’d never play another game, spared from ever wearing the new unis. Maybe he got off light.

Selling out to the nascent era’s fashion didn’t completely haunt the Sox; they went on to finish in second place that year, ultimately foiled by both the strike that cost them an irreplaceable ½ game in the standings and by Aparicio falling as he rounded third, but it was the best winning percentage the team had posted since 1967. Reclamation project Luis Tiant also found a permanent home in the starting rotation. The Sox’s youth movement was beginning to blossom. Mario Guerrero was in the Symbionese Liberation Army. He would go to spring training in 1974 straight from Berkeley.

Mustaches grew and gold chains slithered down hair-covered chests like lava through the pines. Mirror balls spun and 18 ½ minute gaps were listened to, people began jogging and leaving their keys in communal bowls at suburban parties and forming long lines at gas stations. A President resigned. Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that Boston’s schools were unconstitutionally segregated. Nobody liked the solution.

Saigon fell and The Gold Dust Twins came to Fenway and played 81 dates a year. Fred Lynn’s grace was delivered from magical terrycloth wristbands, Jim Rice’s power came from his defiantly modest Afro. Beachballs bounced around the bleachers, floating lazily through the marijuana haze. Cutoffs and flip-flops and Bud Man bucket hats reigned. Amity meant friendship. A fly ball by Carlton Fisk clanged against the left field foul pole, then a bloop single by Joe Morgan broke hearts. October’s spotlight burned bright.

In the cold of winter, Peter Seitz made a ruling. In Boston, police escorts in riot gear rode alongside school buses. People wore leisure suits.

Ted Landsmark had an American flag swung at him and Graig Nettles dumped Bill Lee on his shoulder. America celebrated her 200th birthday. Lynn, Fisk and Burleson didn’t sign their contracts until midseason, which drove drunkard and probable racist Tom Yawkey to his grave. Darrell Johnson was fired. A Gerbil was hired. He set off metal detectors at airports.

Hair spilled over collars. Everyone squinted as if looking into the sun, mouths slightly open, top row of teeth exposed. They shined their Corvettes and IROCs while listening to Foghat on the 8-track. Someone thought to test the water from sump pumps in Love Canal.

The Red Sox showcased their might in 1977 as George Scott returned to Boston and hit 33 taters while making the world regret those tight-fitting uniforms. Butch Hobson hit 30 home runs from the 9th spot in the order. The sun shone warm and the Force was with us, until it wasn’t. Even the Force needs pitching.

Cocaine residue clouded glasstop tables. Husbands and wives wondered how to ask for divorces. Kids hunkered down in paneled rec rooms, striped tube socks pulled high, MAUI 76 emblazoned across their faux football-style shirts. The Brothers Gibb, deities in champagne satin suits, communicated with us through the radio. We didn’t fully understand what they wanted, but they made white people dance and everybody was scared as they waited for the clock to strike midnight. Too much glow, too much Have A Nice Day. Everything was goldenrod or avocado or burnt umber.

Then the ‘70s sent us their herald, Dennis Eckersley, who was formed when lightning from the gods struck California beach sand. Babylon 1978 was complete, and that strong summer sun became a searing glare as the Red Sox blew a 14 game lead to the Yankees. The Gerbil had benched or banished half the team’s talent. Dwight Evans was beaned by a Mike Parrott fastball. Butch Hobson rearranged elbow chips in between throwing errors. A Massacre ensued. But there was a still a little time left in the season. The Sox fought back hard enough for eight more days to force a one game showdown for all the spoils, as if they could sense an era was drawing to a close, leaving everything on the field as they valiantly shielded their eyes against the magnifying glass that hovered squarely over Fenway.

Then lounge lizard Mike Torrez yielded a popup home run to Bucky Dent as Yaz leaned against The Wall, head hanging, cleated red Spot-Bilt kicking the warning track cinders, the blood draining out of his body.

A Pope died. A new Pope was named. He died. Congressman Leo Ryan took a flight to Guyana, concerned about a cult. Stan Papi was on the tarmac, waiting. There was a gunfight. 900 people drank Flavor-Aid. End scene.

Next spring the Red Sox went back to buttoned jerseys and belted pants, embracing their Calvinist roots in order to quell this madness, penance for flying too close to the sun. Embracing mediocrity in the process. The schedule became a reason to watch Yaz get 400 home runs and 3,000 hits and not much more. To watch his last few golden years as Lynn and Fisk and Burleson were pushed out of town and the hope of postseason baseball subsided. A players’ strike. The summers stultifying in their meaninglessness, the klieg lights of October dimmed. Longingly thinking of cherry red batting helmets and V-neck pullovers, because even though the tumult had been heartbreaking, it was never dull.

Sober night fell, no longer set to the thumping bass or soaring strings of the discotheque; a glass of milk by the bed instead of a Schlitz tall boy, a tablet of Anacin instead of a line of coke and a Valium.

Spaghetti-thin stirrups pulled high under the calf-length hem of the uniform pants, the lovely striped sock rendered invisible.

The John Wells Jr Memorial March to $100K

Every year, the Sons of Sam Horn (a Red Sox discussion board I belong to) has a fundraising drive or two to benefit local charities, typically The Jimmy Fund or Mass ALS. The site does pretty well with its humanitarian endeavors, having generated anywhere from $30,000 – $70,000 each year for its causes, most of it directly from members.

This year SoSH has decided to devote the entire 12 months to raising money for the Jimmy Fund in honor of one of our members who recently passed away, John Wells. The target is an ambitious one; we hope to raise $100,000 over the course of 2011. There are a variety of events being held throughout the year to help attain this goal… road races, bar nights, polar plunges, and our annual midsummer online auction, among other things. Full details regarding the scope of the project can be found here (and you can follow the drive’s exploits on Facebook here).

I’ve donated artwork to the site for its charitable online auctions in the past, and members have been kind enough to pay generous amounts for these pieces in the name of fighting cancer or ALS. This year, given my personal attachment to the mission and the challenging goal that has been set, my intention is to create at least five pieces for donation with the hope that they can generate $5,000 toward the cause. This may entail producing a limited number of prints of each piece and selling those in addition to the originals, but a cost/return assessment will need to be done, as well as squaring away any concerns about copyright issues. It may well be that prints will devalue any potential bids on original artwork; SoSH’s member base is relatively small, and maximizing supply and demand will be key to reaching my goal of $5K.

I’ve already started working on the pieces for the auction, which will be held in July. I’ll post them as part of my blog updates as they’re completed, I’ve already got one down, finished on New Year’s Day, appropriately enough.

Keep an eye out here throughout the first half of 2011 for news and updates on SoSH’s fundraising efforts. Thank you.

You’d Think I’d Know By Now

The T ride home after a night of beers at the pub is almost as good as the night out itself. It’s the disparity: during rush hour, the subway cars are stuffed with people, all these stinking people with their elbows and knees and backpacks and purses and perfume and blather and bullshit. It’s like some sort of Navy SEAL psychological torture training just to try to get home with a shred of your humanity intact, to not want to move to a cabin in the woods and never see another goddamn face for the rest of your life.

But the T at 11:30 at night, several beers in your belly and hardly a soul around? Bliss. Oh, the station still smells like wet dog, but late at night you’re one of the only people around. The subway car rushes up like it always does, pushing hot air before it, and the doors slide open and you’re hit in the face with that same stale pee smell, but now the seats are mostly empty and there’s no one standing in the aisles.

And you sort of saunter over to a stretch of unoccupied seats and sling yourself down into one, letting your legs stretch out before you, an arm thrown casually over the metal backs of the row, enjoying the space. And the car moves, taking you somewhere and you can really get lost in your thoughts, which is an impossibility if you’re riding earlier in the day, when you’re just trying not to purposefully elbow the nose of the braying jackass next to you into his brain, delicious as the thought might be.

And you’ll always have evidence of those solitary late-night rides, no matter how much your head was spinning, no matter how many of the evening’s jigsaw pieces go missing, never to return. Because you can just pick up your iPod and click on your Recently Played list.

I woke up the other morning on the couch, tongue a little dry. Head a little achy. Waking up on the couch isn’t incredibly rare, I have trouble falling asleep and will sometimes lie awake watching mindless TV until slumber comes, but I usually manage to get up at some point during the night and slip into bed. Sometimes I don’t.

On this morning I hadn’t fallen asleep watching TV the night prior, though, I had been Out. And so began the oft-repeated dance of filling in the blanks.

Out? I asked myself. Out, I answered.

With who? Some former co-workers. Yes.

And as my brain eased into the familiar choreography of The Reconstruction, I sort of half-rolled over, still fully clothed, and fished my iPod out of my pocket to cut short this charade. Squinting, I held it up and thumbed to my Recently Played list. I blinked at the songs on the screen, looking them and up and down and sideways, slowly realizing I had played only the first two on the list over and over the entire T ride home.

Jeremiah Freed – Jeremiah Freed – “Again
Jeremiah Freed – Times Don’t Change – “Blinded”

Ah, yes. Slumped down low on the seats of the T car, one hand probably shading my eyes, the other holding the iPod, listening to the same two damn songs repeatedly for 40 minutes or so. Click. Back. Click. Back. Click.

Are any songs worth listening to that many times in a row, let alone ones by a band named Jeremiah Freed? No and definitely not. But it’s there, right there. The iPod ain’t lying.

Jeremiah Freed is (or was, I doubt they’re still recording) a band from Southern Maine of modest local renown at the beginning of the Aughts. They played squarely earnest rock and had a minor radio hit with the aforementioned “Again”. They were obviously a far bigger deal in Maine than they were anywhere else, and my attachment to the two songs has very little to do with the scant talent exhibited in their writing or musicianship, but as more of a time-and-place thing. I had just moved to Portland as the band experienced its burgeoning popularity, and I profoundly enjoyed living there in a way that had me convinced it was my homeland in a past life. So hearing this middling rock band on the radio three or four times a day during this honeymoon definitely created a favorable mental association for me, regardless of the music itself, which is otherwise unremarkable.

Except. But.

The two songs feature a kind of cynical self-awareness that I tend to favor anyway. Granted, it’s all the more resonant because I have since left Maine, which for me was like leaving the warm embrace of an Eva Mendes. So I romanticize “Again” and Blinded,” yes, but that self-flagellation is in those songs to begin with, independent of me and my feelings about Portland. And now I live on the South Shore in Massachusetts and have to commute 90-120 minutes to and from work each way, half of it on the effing T. So on the way home from a night out I end up listening to a forgettable band from Maine through a Harpoon-induced haze, just to hear lines like these over and over and over, banal as they are:

Anyone can see that I’m the same man I’ve always been
Anyone can see that we’re as blind as we’ve ever been

Or

‘Cause I know that it’s the same
When they all come back again
You think I’d know by now

You think I’d know by now. I don’t even know the context of the line; who’s coming back again? The lyrics are pretty stupid, except for that one last line…which isn’t even a lyric, it’s a common saying, the kind of thing I’d be thinking to myself on some T ride home even if it weren’t blared through earbuds directly into my brain. You know, looking around, at This. This Subway Car, These Jeans, That Person Over There, That Station Whizzing By, This Night Sky Above My Head, That Moon Looking Down. Everything, the pieces of which have combined in such a way that has me sitting and listening to Jeremiah Freed (of all bands), and I wonder if there was any alternate route I could’ve taken that would have led to songs like this meaning nothing to me, and the answer is, of course, yes. And that I probably recognized each and every turning point at the time but did nothing about it. And this behavior will likely continue. Same as I’ve always been, blind. You’d think I’d know by now.

So the songs work for me. That’s how it goes.

The Burden of Dreams

I went back to school to get my degree in the late ’90s after a lapse in enrollment of 8 years. I ended up becoming pretty friendly with a girl who was in a lot of my classes, she was an older student as well (not as old as I was, but in her mid-twenties), so we started a lot of study groups together because it wasn’t like we were doing cool college kid things like getting drunk and going on road trips or anything.

In getting to know her, I gradually found out that she hadn’t enrolled in college right out of high school because she had moved around the country a lot and never really knew where she was going to end up in any given year, so she would pick up a class or two here and there and that was it. I assumed that maybe she had been in the military, or perhaps her husband or boyfriend was, but I didn’t get too much into it because I figured she’d talk about it if it were relevant.

Toward the end of our last semester (spring 2001), during one of our classes I mentioned I had visited Memphis — a  friend of mine moved there for a while, somehow it was germane to the topic — and this girl commented that she lived in Memphis for about a year because her husband played baseball there.

“Who, the Chicks?” I asked, referring to Memphis’ Triple-A team.

“Yes. Well, no… they changed to the Redbirds the year he was there. But yes, the same team, basically.” I hadn’t been aware of the change.

“What’s your husband’s name?”

She told me*.

*I don’t want to print his name here, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I don’t want to single him out. There are millions like him, and his story is symbolic anyway.

I nodded my head in an I-didn’t-know-that fashion, not that I’d have had any reason to know (I had never heard of the guy). She was married, I was soon-to-be engaged, but neither of us talked about our significant others. I didn’t ask any further questions about her husband, because I knew he hadn’t played in the majors by that point, and if she was going to Framingham State College full time I assumed his baseball career was over.

I looked up his stats online the next chance I had. It was a little more difficult to find minor league statistics back then, and I had to go to a few different sites to gather enough info to come close to a complete picture, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

Second round pick out of high school.
28 HR, 106 RBI in High A in 1997.
27 HR, 83 RBI in AA & AAA in 1998.
Then he fell off the table 1999, and was out of baseball after that season (an abortive comeback in Nashville hadn’t happened yet). In looking at his other stats it was clear the guy never hit for average and whiffed a lot, but man, that’s a lot of home runs for the minors.

With this sparse information, I began envisioning some unfortunate injury history, or a backstory that the stats would never illustrate. I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my friend about it, I’d have felt uncomfortable doing so. We both graduated that spring and kept in touch via email for a little while, but I haven’t had contact with her in quite a few years. But I always remembered her husband’s name, because to me it’s become symbolic for all of the failed careers of former prospects.

As the web became more saturated with information and search engines became more efficient, this guy’s picture came into sharper focus based on the available numbers alone. Two seasons spent in rookie ball, two in low-A. He was 22 before he ever even got to high-A, which was his breakout season. The dude was obviously a hulk (6’3″ and either 210 or 290 lbs, depending on what site you trust most), but given the level of competition and his age I guess it wasn’t that alarming he hit 28 home runs that year. He did make the leap to Double-A and Triple-A the following season as a 23 year old and hit 27 home runs, but racked up 179Ks in doing so. Without seeing so much as a single highlight clip of his, my immediate assessment was that I bet he couldn’t handle breaking pitches. Either that or he had no bat control whatsoever; if he was lucky enough to hit it (regardless of pitch), it usually went out of the park, but hitting it was the tricky part.

It goes without saying that steroids weren’t nearly at the forefront of my mind 9 years ago as they are now. Looking at his stats today, that’d be my first guess, fair or unfair. His power numbers dropped severely his last season in Triple-A, and he was essentially out of baseball after that. Maybe after having two pretty good years on ‘roids, he got off of them, thinking his own talent would make up the difference, only to discover he was wrong. Or maybe he was clean, but did have an injury, one that sapped his power; a bad back, wrist trouble, knees. Maybe he ate his way out of the game… Baseball Cube lists his weight as 210, but B-Ref lists it as 290.

Or maybe he just couldn’t hit a curveball.

But he had two pretty good years in the minors for someone with his skill set… he was never going to be Tony Gwynn, but he might have had the chance to be Rob Deer or Pete Incaviglia. Whatever the reason, he was good, but just not good enough. And while there’s failure in that, I wonder if he looks back and thinks for a summer or two he had it… no matter what he’s doing now or who he has become, he had it, and I wonder if that makes him feel satisfied or empty.

A wise and thoughtful man once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Those who are blessed with just an iota of talent are actually cursed.” I mean, better not to be talented at all, if your iota isn’t going to be enough to actually take you where you want to go. All that iota does is make you aware of your own shortcomings. The untalented stroll around in ignorant bliss. The truly talented shoot across the sky like a comet and the in-betweeners look up at them from back porches, beers in hand, faint smiles on faces.

I’m an HR recruiter, and one of the more fascinating things about my job is to see what brought people to where they currently are, professionally speaking. Partly because it’s my job, but mostly because it’s a story. I see dozens of stories each day. Often I have but a piece of paper from which to discern the clues, but occasionally I meet the most qualified of these folks and get to chat with them about their story. I’d do this for free (ask some of my friends, they know this all too well), but getting paid for it is one of the few instances of my own professional life dovetailing with my wants. Hearing these stories gives me hope. Why? Because they are usually haphazard. They are not meticulously planned, even those that are among the most successful. We are not drones, organisms born from hexagonal chambers and shuffled off to our destinies from the moment of birth.

The biggest quirk to these stories? Oftentimes, what we are best at is not what we are paid to do. Or rather, maybe we are better at getting paid well for something heretofore unconsidered. Nobody grows up thinking, “Someday I’m going to make people think I’m really indispensible,” or, “I’m going to network with the best of them.” It’s bullshit work and should hold no value in a decent society, but it is a valuable skill nonetheless. As valuable as showing up every day and showing up on time, things anybody should be able to do. But not everyone can, and fewer people do.

Hitting straight fastballs thrown by go-nowhere pitchers three years younger than you? Writing navel-gazing drivel on a blog? Fly fishing? Not everyone can or does these things either, but these are not commodities. Just because you’re better at it than the average cat doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something that can be pursued on a professional level. But what if it’s what you’re best at? And all your eggs were in that particular basket, but it’s just not good enough?

Better to be a number-cruncher, no? The drone? The worker who gets things done, just because that’s what they were born to do?

Probably.

But there’s an art to this uselessness. Because whether or not the former second-round pick thinks he gave it his best shot, or if his stomach curdles up every night when the lights go out as he thinks about missed opportunities, he should be able to look back and think for a brief summer or two he was one of the best at doing what he wanted to do. Or at least the best of what he could do. The swing of the bat, connecting so forcefully on the sweet spot that it almost feels like you’re swinging through air as if you hit nothing, the ball arcing through the muggy air, dusky in the setting sun. Rounding the bases. I did that.

Putting a baseball where no man, not even Willie Mays, could ever catch it. Doing it a lot, even as the shadows grow ever longer on your career, closing in, the writing on the wall in permanent ink despite your hammering pitch after pitch over the fence. Because what else are you supposed to do? Give up? Even though your fate has been decided? Walk away? No. You do what you do, and see what happens.

Eventually the end happens. Everyone hits their ceiling. Few have the benefit of having it defined so clearly in columns of statistics.

And when the numbers tell you you’re done, you hang ’em up. Take your bonus money and maybe go start a construction business. Someone somewhere looks at your story, your resume, and sees some zigs and zags and wonders, “I’d like to hear that tale.”

Why?

Because it’s in all of us. Whatever you’re best at sucks, and you have to work the diagonal to find your way in the world, and people like success stories. Makes the impossible possible. But the iota of talent is like a childhood pet; a fond yet dim memory, kept on call for when it’s needed. You grill burgers and dogs in the backyard, sun on your face, calm in knowing that you had Something once, however fleeting.

Or maybe you live a life wracked by regret, wondering what could have been. Not even over never making it to The Show, but simply wondering why you were given a gift that could only bring you so far, in a career path that dictates failure unless you break through that envelope. Or maybe you had the Real Deal gift but your body betrayed you, even in your youth; a 24-year old man with a torn tricep, or a slipped disc. Or maybe you took PEDs, and if so, well, I don’t know. I don’t know.

Or maybe, just maybe, you really weren’t good enough, no matter what. In fact, that’s likely. There were people out there better than you at what you did. Better at trying to beat you. And what do you do then, after getting punched in the mouth, your teeth rattled, blood welling under your tongue? You better do something, that’s for sure.

We all have to do something.

Three Six Five

I was going to go running tonight when I got home from work, but my wife and kids were sitting out on the porch starting their dinner, and that was just enough to push my lazy self into a chair to settle down with them. That and the fact that if I went running, it would be time for the kids to go to bed by the time I came back and showered. Meaning I’d have barely seen them all day.

That happens sometimes. I’m not going to fool anyone into thinking I can get up early enough to go running in the morning before I go to work, so if I want to maintain even the slightest pretense of trying to stay under 195 pounds, I’ve got to go running at night. And that’s basically a whole day of not seeing the kids. Which is collateral damage, but sometimes it happens. The burden of being a fatass.

But I didn’t want it to happen tonight.

The days bleed into weeks and most of the time we can’t wait for whatever moment we’re in to pass, to be gone and tick over onto the next moment… as if there’s some Great Thing out there just over the horizon that would arrive if only this stupid Present we occupy would get out of the way.

Sit down. Look around. Appreciate the smile you see, the beginning of a laugh. Take note of the tactile things: the squirmy toddler as you throw him into the air, or the smack of you high-fiving your oldest child.  Close your eyes… sniff the faint scent of soap on your wife’s neck. The summer evening. Steaks on the grill.

I remember the smell of the sea at Old Orchard Beach as Danny and I stood on the cold sand one June evening many years ago, looking out into the foggy blackness that was the Gulf of Maine. Taking it in, I was astonished that plowing through that kind of unknown was part of his job description. He was in the Coast Guard, and he had told me of stories of sneaking up on unsuspecting drug-running boats as he skimmed across the night water in some kind of motorized stealth dinghy, adrenaline pumping, his hand ready to draw his weapon.

Behind us were the gaudy lights of OOB’s Strip, to our left was the Pier. Danny and I had been bar-hopping, taking full advantage of the 75-cent drafts and quarter-per-play games of pool that were so common among the OOB dives. It was the first summer we were 21, and we were Butch and Sundance. Luke and Han.

I remember the cold sand under my feet once we walked out onto the beach. I had taken off my socks and shoes. The water lured us away from the promise of drinking; there was something about the infinite and dark vastness of the ocean that spoke louder than beer.

The space Dan occupied, it was like that of a brother. This simplest of things. He was at my shoulder, and we talked about a lot, squinting out into that hazy space. Looking down at my toes hidden in the sand; I had burrowed them in there. Dan next to me with his slightly hunched posture, that half-smile he often wore, as if the very idea of life amused him. The short sentences. His laugh. He loved to laugh.

My daughter cut in, asking me, “What are you thinking?”

I looked at her. I was sitting on my deck, the light in the sky fading. I took her in my arms, the scent of her shampoo in my nostrils.

“I was thinking of your Uncle Dan.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, and the Personal Response to Film

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

–Alexander Pope

In all the film talk that I’ve taken part in or read about over the years,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has become sort of a litmus test about what kind of moviegoer you are. Unlike most films that that fall into this category, however, the results of the test aren’t as stark; it’s not like a Fight Club or a Memento… I think it just guages your personality/temperament rather than your ability to understand or appreciate film.

Anyway. I saw Eternal Sunshine when it came out and liked it fine. Went with my wife. It was probably one of the last films I saw before my first child was born, an arrival which ended my theater-going career. Not a bad trade-off; I do thank Christ every day that I live in the home video age, though… in contrast, I give you my parents: they were married in 1968, my oldest sister arrived in 1969. My middle sister in 1970. Me in ’71. They were movie-going folk. Were. How did they hack it? Midnight Cowboy. Five Easy Pieces. The Last Picture Show. A Clockwork Orange. The French Connection. The Exorcist. American Graffiti. The Godfather. All missed out on, only to be caught on network TV years down the road, sliced and diced, panned and scanned on a floor-model Zenith you had to kick once in a while to restore the color. Damn.

But back to Eternal Sunshine. I liked the conceit. I like mindbending movies, your Blade Runner, your 12 Monkeys, so obviously I like Charlie Kaufman and I dug Eternal Sunshine, but it didn’t really stay with me in any way. Not sure why; it just didn’t. I remembered Kate Winslet’s hair.

But it’s been brought up time and again in other films discussions I’ve had, and since Netflix won’t see fit to send me any movies ranked higher than #7 on my queue, I figured I’d give it a second chance and threw it onto my list accordingly. It arrived the other day.

I watched it tonight, and I cannot overstate the impact it had on me. This was great movie. Was it a Great Movie? Damned if I know. But it immediately became the kind of film for which I’d buy the DVD, which admittedly might not be saying much (I own over 200). But I really felt like it said something about the need we have for other people and the importance of life lessons, good or bad.

Yeah, OK. So why didn’t I feel that the first time I watched it? I was with the same girl, living mostly the same life, except for the kids, an aspect of relationships which isn’t touched on in the film at all. Why the dramatically different response?

I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I would think that I was inhabiting a more shallowly idyllic and somewhat ignorant stage in my relationship with my wife at the time, and the movie’s themes didn’t speak to me as deeply as they did now, 6 years later. Taking stock of regrets. Holding onto fleetingly beautiful moments. Feeling as if one’s soul is intertwined with another’s across various planes of existences.

For me, the stakes got a lot higher once I had kids, and the corresponding highs and lows got far more extreme. Are there moments that I’d like to have erased from my memory? Yes. Yes, there are. But what would that do? What would be the point? It’s because of those trying times that I’ve become somewhat of a man, even if I had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way.

I just didn’t feel the urgency between Carrey and Winslet the first time I saw the film. Tonight, it fairly leapt off the screen. The disparity was striking. And I’m sure I’d have gotten into an internet slap-fight with the 2004 version of myself had we both posted about Eternal Sunshine back then, our opinions are so divergent. Which kind of makes you stop and say, Hey, what’s going on here? Because how can I feel so confidently about my impression of a film if it’s going to change a few years down the road?

Which brings me to Part Two of this post. Kind of unrelated, but not really. I give you a supreme example of this phenomenon. Lost in Translation is another cinematic litmus test, maligned by its detractors as an empty vessel of a movie, an artless blank slate that requires the viewer to provide all the emotional fuel. If you’re one who has longing in his or her heart it will work for you, and if you don’t… well, I guess the movie won’t work for you, but of more concern for me, it means you’re not human. But hey, that’s just my take.

But Lost in Translation. A shell game of a movie because it relied on the viewer’s personal response to the film. Well, duh. Well. Duh. That’s called going to the movies. I’ve always believed in that anyway, but after seeing Eternal Sunshine again and having a vastly different experience with it, the belief is validated.

This is why I always try to couch my statements about movies in wussy terms like “I think,” or “in my opinion,” instead of stark talk like “this film is,” or “that film isn’t“. It’s not me equivocating; it’s an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the medium.

I don’t know what my point is, by the way. Just wanted to get it out.

Eh.

I made a feeble attempt at a watercolor painting the other day. I hadn’t used the medium since high school, and even back then I really didn’t know what I was doing with it. So you can imagine what it was like trying to use it now.

It wasn’t a terribly successful piece, but I had to go through the prepping motions (sizing/stretching the paper), so it was good to get that technical stuff down again.

My issues mostly lie with the proper ratio of paint to water. Watercolors are awesome because a lot of their subtleties can be manipulated depending on brush and stroke and intensity, but to fully take advantage of this, you have to strike that delicate balance of water to paint. I always ended up with too much of one or the other in my mixing wells.

But it was a start. That was the point. To get that ugly first piece out of the way so that the next time I tried it, I’d have that much more first-hand knowledge to apply. It’s just that watercolors are kind of a pain in the ass. Maybe they won’t be someday (they probably aren’t for people who are used to working with them), but right now, that perceived difficulty is a deterrent.

Hopefully I’ll overcome that. It’s something I really should be more proficient in.

It’s Just a Stupid Song

Shinedown. Shinedown, for Chrissakes.

I was assaulted by this song for most of last summer. You know, “Second Chance”.

I just saw Halley’s comet, she waved…

It felt like an unholy piece of corporate rock pap birthed by the union of Daughtry and Nickelback. The kind of song where you hit the seek button upon hearing that first recognizable strum of the guitar.

Whatever, I would tell myself. It’s just a stupid summer song.

But then I got a call at the end of August that my cousin had killed himself, the kind of shocking event that drops the floor from underneath your feet, but as you fall into that irreversible abyss you think about it and maybe you realize it wasn’t that much of a surprise at all. Not at all.

Then I’m on a plane to Phoenix to claim him, his brother flying across the country from Maryland to meet me, where we will converge and ponder the incongruity of us hugging in the desert. And the whole flight I was alternately trying to sleep or read so that I didn’t have to consider why I was on that plane in the first place, with this incomprehensible mission looming in front of me, secure in the knowledge that it was going to suck and that I had no idea what I was in for. Like, a Through the Looking Glass kind of suck.

And ultimately, I was right and then some: a few days later I’d end up behind the building of some bar in Arizona, crouching on red stone gravel under a few mesquite trees in the twilight, trying to yank a sob from my unyielding chest, unable to cry even though I wanted to. The tears would be my salvation, but I couldn’t conjure them.

And when I went back into the bar, red dust still on my heels, disgusted at myself for having failed at this simplest of tasks, I looked up at the rows and rows of TV screens. Someone had made a DVD slideshow of pictures of Danny, his kids, of him with his family and friends. They were on all of these TVs, 20 or so flat screens and one huge pulldown, and a buddy of his had put some musical accompaniment to it. The song that happened to be playing as I entered was the aforementioned “Second Chance”.

I just saw Halley’s Comet, she waved
Said, “Why you always running in place?”

Tell my mother
Tell my father…

And I crumbled. And I embraced that crumbling like it was the closest person I have ever known.

* * *

My son lurks. In a good way. He hangs around, he observes. He soaks up stuff, even things unsaid. If I’m on the computer, we shoot the breeze. Or I draw in my studio, he scribbles some stuff alongside me, asks some questions. I listen to music when I do these things, and I kind of assume he can’t even hear it, like it’s a language he doesn’t speak, even though he’s five years old and can tell me who sings “Don’t Worry Baby” or “Debaser”.

I was sitting in front of my drawing table today, looking at the blank space, a beer sweating on the shelf next to me, just kind of zoning out. Because the stereo was on, turned up loud, of course, since it was my basement studio and no one was going to object. It was Shinedown’s “Second Chance,” but I wasn’t really hearing it, I was thinking of red stone dust and a cousin who was my own age but no longer there.

My son kind of crept up to my side, which he is wont to do, and when I turned to look at him, he plainly asked, “Is this song special?”

I opened my mouth.

“Yes.”

Evolution

I’ve often lamented in these blog pages about how long the artistic process is. How draining it can be.

And it’s true, it’s true. But it’s changing somewhat, and whether that’s due to my own perception/attitude or the simple fact that I’m getting better and the typical stuff that I do has become easier for me, I can’t say. Some of both, although I’m leaning more toward the latter, I suspect.

The two pieces of art posted above represent my output for the past two days. Henrik Larsson on Thursday, Wayne Rooney on Friday. An acrylic painting and a color pastel,  media which take longer than a charcoal drawing, no less. Two months ago (hell, even two weeks ago) this would have been unheard of for me.

And neither of them was commissioned. The Larsson is something I did for myself… I’m a Celtic FC fan, and I wish I could see more of their games, and I was working out that withdrawal through art. The Rooney is for a friend who’s a big ManU fan, but it was something we talked about drunkenly a while ago, and I offered to do it for no profit, just to break into doing soccer art. And I’m glad I made that choice.

The night prior to beginning each of these pieces it seemed as if I barely got any sleep because I was dreaming about drawing and painting these subjects, and it was so intense I felt like I was awake, even if I really wasn’t (I honestly couldn’t tell). And now I’m no longer the guy on the high dive board above an Olympic pool, wondering how I’m going to get down without killing myself, which was how I always felt. Now? Now I’m looking to slice through that water like a knife and fracture the pool bottom with my fist. I attacked that Larsson painting; I just slapped on the paint, and by the end of the day, it was done. I abandoned the calculated and reserved approach I usually take because I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with it in my gut. Every thing else came from that. And I finished a painting. In a day. For me, that’s a feat.

The Rooney drawing was even more interesting because I wanted to do a few slightly weird things from the get-go. I had a vision that was a wee bit different than representational; I wanted to screw with the colors and properties to make Rooney more ominous, like he was some looming beast or alien from a different dimension. Purple sky, greenish hue, liquid shirt. Making his slightly reddish hair orange. I’m not quite sure if I achieved the effect I was going for, but there’s some subjective quality about the piece, which is enough for me.

I’m going to outgrow this genre someday, and I don’t say it out of disrespect, but it’s obviously the natural progression that every artist takes. I think I’ll always be involved with it, because I enjoy the work and it pays well, but on my own time there will be a day when I start goofing around with something else. And I guess I always knew that time would come.

Upon Induction

In the end, it was the casual bat toss after the follow-through. Just sort of a shovel pass to get the piece of ash out of the way, the coda to a compact swing, the dot on the i that was a well-struck sphere of horsehide. I found that it crept its way into my own swing. First, it was the flip of a yellow plastic wiffle ball bat. Then I did it with a 26-ounce or 28-ounce aluminum bat in Little League, on the rare occasions I hit a ball on the screws in the first place, the kind of stroke that justified such a subtle flourish. Finally, as I grew older and settled into suburban mediocrity, it was with a 32-ounce Easton softball bat, the weapon of the workaday warrior.

As reliable as the tides; a pop-up or a stupid groundball to third would result in a disgusted drop of the bat, as if it was the sweating droplets of suck that infected my palms. (Get away! Get away!)

But a laser shot from the sweet spot? That spry push that sent the bat suspended for what seemed like an eternity, a gently falling space station from Kubrick’s 2001, Strauss providing the soundtrack.

That was Jim Rice to me. And that flip is embedded in whatever part of my brain controls my motor skills, such as they are. I still do it now, 20-plus years after I ever saw it on a consistent basis.

* * *

Jim Rice wasn’t even my guy. Yaz was. I was old school like that, even at 7 or 8, and I felt that Yaz was the respected elder of the team and he warranted that deference. The other players? Hey, they were great and all, but Yaz… he was the one the Greeks would have written about.

Probably so, but little did I know at that age that Rice was a guy they’d celebrate, too. A man of such natural strength. I laugh today because in all the highlight reels we’ve been inundated with this past weekend, Rice actually seems small. Not tiny, but he wasn’t a hulk. He wasn’t 6’ 4”. He didn’t have improbably bulging arms. There’s a Sports Illustrated cover from 1979 with him and Dave Parker on the cover, and you might look at it and in comparing the two you’d think to yourself, This is man who 46 home runs and 15 triples the year prior? Ballplayers from yesteryear look fairly shriveled compared to this era’s ‘roided up monstrosities, but here’s Rice standing next to a peer. But nobody said he was small or wiry then, because he wasn’t. He wasn’t Hank Aaron, an everyman whose extra gift was lightning wrists, he was a strongman in a normal-sized (if incredibly fit) body.

But he wasn’t my guy. Nobody other than Yaz was. And by the time Captain Carl retired, I was 12 and too old to direct that child-like awe towards another player. By then I was wise enough to see behind the curtain and realize that it was just laundry that we were rooting for.

* * *

Rice signed with the Sox three weeks after I was born. His induction into the Hall of Fame happens at another curious moment in my life, one where I still feel like I have a lot to offer this world in one way or another, but the basic path has been chosen for me at this point. It’s how I work within that path that will dictate the rest of the story.

As I watched NESN religiously today, I pondered this man whose professional career encompassed my entire existence. It wasn’t so much about Jim Rice and who he was, but what he represented. To me. My five-year old son, subjected to all of this, asked me at one point, “Does Jim Rice play now?”

“No. No, he doesn’t. He played when I was a boy. Like you.”

“Have you drawn him?” This apparently is a sign of legitimacy.

“Yes. Two within the past month, actually.”

And I looked at the TV screen as Jim Rice sent a frozen rope into the corner, tripling as he chugged around the bases in a polyester double-knit road grey V-neck, bold red helmet leaving a streak in the bad late-70’s video production.

He played when I was a boy.