Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Few Great Moments in Baseball

One. He stepped out on the porch of the small tin-roofed clinic and found ten patients still waiting. They were sick and poor and had traveled a long way to see a doctor. He was tired. Then he looked down and saw me standing out there in the grass.

“Dad, it’s time for lunch!” I called to him. I was seven years old.

“I’m coming,” he said. Then he disappeared inside. I walked back across the mission yard to our house.

Later in the afternoon he must have glanced out the window and noticed me walking around with my oversized baseball glove. “OK, let's play some catch," he said.

I didn’t know how to catch or throw a ball. Nobody played baseball in the rainforest of Ecuador. But the glove was old and worn. Dad had bought it from another boy’s family who lived in Quito. I got it for Christmas. The boy’s name was written across the glove in huge black capital letters: “Melvin Christiansen.” I blotted out Melvin Christiansen’s name with a felt marker and wrote my own name underneath.

Dad stood a few feet away and tossed the ball in a slow arc. I held up my glove and the ball bounced off and rolled on the ground. The glove was a useless appendage designed to enhance a skill I did not possess.

“No, not like that,” he said. “Like this. Use both hands.” He stretched out his hands like he was holding an imaginary world.

I tried again and he worked with me, and then the rain came and he had to go back to his patients.

“Don’t worry, Ol’ Buddy,” he said. “Pretty soon we’ll be going back to Minneapolis on furlough and then you can really learn how to play ball.”

* * *

Two. You could hardly see Dave Jarzyna’s small face under the Twins cap, but he had a look of pure joy when Jim “Mudcat” Grant hit a home run in the sixth game of the 1965 World Series against the Dodgers. Dave leaped into the air, screaming “Mudcat! Mudcat!”

We were watching the game on a tiny black-and-white television set in the cafeteria at Portland Elementary School in Richfield, Minnesota. Our principal, Mr. Rundell, was a big baseball fan and he had herded us all in there to watch the Twins' historic World Series debut.

I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on. Fortunately, I had Dave Jarzyna to explain the mysteries and nuances of our national pastime. “Mudcat is a
pitcher,” he said. “Pitchers don’t hit home runs in the World Series -- they just pitch. This has never happened before!”

Dave was given to hyperbole. He probably knew this was actually the
second time in history that an American League pitcher had homered during a World Series game. A Cleveland Indians’ pitcher named Jim Bagley had done it once before -- in 1920.

The Twins went on to win that game 5-1, tying the Series at three games apiece. Two days later we were back in the cafeteria to watch the final game. Hundreds of children sat in rows and stared at the little TV. We strained to see Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva as they came up to bat.

Dave Jarzyna's heroes tried desperately to hit against Sandy Koufax, the best pitcher they’d ever seen. They came up short. The Dodgers won the World Series and we shuffled quietly back to Miss Olsen’s third-grade class. My friend Dave had tears in his eyes.

* * *

Three. I finished speaking and people clapped and I returned to my table below the dais.

“That was a good speech,” said the stranger with long dark hair. “They’re all writing checks.”

“Thanks!” I laughed. “But I hope it wasn’t too long.”

It was -- too long. I scanned the audience of prosperous and graying alums sitting around the ballroom that night in the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel. They did not appear to be writing checks. They were poking at rubbery chicken cordon bleu. But he was interesting. He made sardonic quips. We got to talking. After dinner we continued our conversation in the revolving bar atop the hotel. I asked him if he lived in LA.

“Yeah,” he said, “I live here now. I moved away for a few years, but I came back. I’m from Southern California originally. Actually, I grew up in Santa Barbara. You may know my dad -- he worked at the college.”

I had never met his father, but I knew the name and had seen him on campus. Rath Shelton was a beefy man with a big soup-strainer mustache.

“Why did you go away?” I asked, “And what brought you back?”

“I wanted to play baseball,” he replied. “I played in the minor leagues for six years -- with the Baltimore Orioles organization. I was a second baseman.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Professional baseball. You must be really good.”

“Unfortunately not quite good enough for the majors,” he laughed. “I came back to LA and I’m writing a screenplay.”

“Really?” I said, trying not to sound skeptical. “A film?” I asked politely what his movie was going to be about. He said it was about a minor league baseball player.

“It’s a comedy -- sort of,” he said. “And there’s some sex in it.”

He seemed like a nice guy. I was sorry his dreams of a major league career had not panned out. I wished him well. Silently, I hoped he would find a decent job doing something he liked.

* * *

Four. Dan Tweed’s family and friends and a few academic colleagues assembled to remember him in the Sarah Duke Gardens. He died young of lymphoma in the winter of 1997. Dan had loved to walk in the Gardens in the spring when the tulips bloomed and the wisteria made a bright purple roof over the gazebo at the top of the terraces. But this was a bleak day in January.

One of Dan’s closest friends from his Colorado days was eulogizing him, talking about how much Dan had loved the outdoors. I looked at the gray, colorless sky and remembered another day a few years earlier.

That other day had brought a glorious spring afternoon and Dan and I were sprawled on the mint-green grass beyond the outfield of the old Durham Athletic Park. We talked about work and watched the Bulls game and tried to keep track of our two small sons, both named Matthew. The game was dull and scoreless for a few innings and then the hometown crowd came alive as one of the Durham stars knocked a ball over the fence in left field, just missing a billboard-sized wooden cutout of a bull, captioned with the words, “Hit the bull. Win a steak.”

“You know this is where they made that movie,
Bull Durham.” Dan said. I was a newcomer.

“Yeah, I heard that,” I said. “I once met the guy who wrote it. He was a minor league player himself.”

In 2003,
Sports Illustrated named Bull Durham -- written and directed by Ron Shelton, starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon -- the greatest sports movie of all time.

* * *

Five. On another sun-drenched spring afternoon, I drove straight from work to Cedar Falls Park to watch Matt’s game. I arrived late. The second inning had already started. I didn’t think it would matter.

“Matthew got a base hit and you missed it!” Danny Pollitt chided me as I found a seat next to him in the bleachers. I glanced down the row of parents and saw Greg Jones, the new Dean of Duke Divinity School and father of Ben, one of Matt’s teammates on the “Atlanta Braves” of the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation League. Greg held a sheaf of papers in his lap. The Dean appeared to be multi-tasking.

The Braves were losing in the sixth inning. Their opponents had runners on first and second with no outs. I was talking to Danny, droning on about my research on schizophrenia and violent behavior. Danny was listening politely with one ear but watching the field at the same time, taking everything in. He’s a sports guy; no matter how small the venue, it’s always about the game.

Suddenly the parents broke into wild cheers and I heard people calling my son’s name: “Matt!! Matt!!”

“You missed it again!”
Danny shouted. "You've got to pay attention!" But I had seen it -- sort of. Matt was playing second base and had caught a line drive. The boy on first had already lurched off the bag on a fool’s errand and Matt ran to tag him out. Then he turned and hurled the ball to the third baseman, who improbably caught it and tagged out the remaining hapless runner for a triple play. This was a small miracle that would not have happened in a game played by boys over age twelve.

The Braves were ecstatic.

“Dad! Dad, did you see it? Did you see my play?” Matt wanted to know, after the game.

“I saw you,” I said. “You were the greatest.”

Then I told him about the time I watched the real Braves play once in Atlanta in 1970. We were visiting my Uncle Tom’s family and he took us to a game in the stadium. A black man stepped to the plate and swung mightily and smote the ball into the heavens. I couldn’t see it, but it didn’t matter.

“That’s Hank Aaron right there,” Uncle Tom said. "One day he'll pass Babe Ruth's record. Then he'll be the greatest ever.”

* * *

Six. It was a Saturday after Matt’s year-end birthday and we were in a post-holiday slump. His friends were gone and school hadn’t started and the shine was off the new stuff.

“There’s nothing to do, Dad,” he complained. I dragged him to the Chapel Hill library to find a book. In the youth fiction section I happened on a paperback called
Slump with a picture of a glum-looking kid about Matt’s age on the cover.

I glanced at the dust jacket flap and read the author information. The book was written by a sports journalist who had worked for CBS. He had also been a PR executive -- Director of Marketing and Broadcasting for the Minnesota Twins during their 1987 World Championship season. He was credited with helping the Twins set an American League attendance record of 3 million fans. He had been awarded a Twins World Series ring.

His name was David Jarzyna.

I wrote him a letter. I asked if he remembered the missionary kid from third grade -- the one who brought all the weird stuff for show-and-tell. He wrote back immediately. Of course he remembered. (Who could forget the twenty-foot-long anaconda skin, the blowgun, the spear, and the feathered headdress from the Amazon jungle?) He sent Matt an autographed copy of
Slump. The inscription read, “To Matt. Always avoid slumps -- Dave Jarzyna.”

* * *

Seven. On Father’s Day, 2007, I took my dad and my son to a Durham Bulls game. We sat behind the third baseline and watched the Bulls beat the Indianapolis Indians 7-3.

I remembered that long-ago afternoon in Ecuador when Dad tried to teach me to play catch. He was thirty-seven then. He was eighty now.

I tried to talk to Dad over the din of the crowd, but he couldn’t hear me. In the lull at the seventh-inning stretch I asked him if he still missed my lovely mother. “Yes, I do,” he said, “But you know, one of these days we’re all going to see her again in heaven. We’ll all be together then.”

I thought of heaven and recalled the closing scene in that movie where a young ballplayer walks out of the mist and plays catch with his son in the twilight. They’re the same age. It could be Dan Tweed and his son. It could be a lawn by a cornfield in the Midwest or it could be the edge of a rainforest.

* * *

Eight. It was Father’s Day again, 2008. Matt gave me a copy of an 800-page tome by John Feinstein, called Living on the Black.

“Dad, I know you’re not really into baseball,” he said. “But I thought you might like this book. It's the story of these two pitchers . . ."

I had heard John Feinstein's sports commentaries on NPR. I was sure he was a great storyteller.

“Thanks, Buddy,” I said. “I know I’m going to love it.”

* * *

Nine. Baseball is supposed to have nine innings and I wanted this story to have nine parts. But what I’ve just written is pretty much everything that’s happened to me involving baseball. Unless you count the time I was passing through Logan Airport in the fall of 2004 and noticed that the Boston Red Sox had won the World Series, breaking the curse of the Bambino. So I bought a Sox World Series cap for Matt. Then I thought, what the heck, I’ll get one for myself, too. I’m not a Red Sox fan -- or any kind of fan, really. But I like to wear the cap when I go on vacation to the beach in South Carolina. That’s where I am now, as I write this. I think the hat goes well with my Friedrich Nietzche T-shirt that says on the back, “Why does man exist?”

Oh, yeah, and there are supposed to be nine players. So this story has Mudcat Grant, Jim Bagley, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Ron Shelton, Babe Ruth (himself the Bambino, of the broken curse), and Matt Swanson. What a team.

* * *
Extra Inning. (Sometimes the game just keeps going . . .)

It was May, 1986, the morning of my graduation, and I had settled in to my seat in the magnificent Woolsey Hall. After six years of hard work to arrive at this day, I was filled with a feeling of accomplishment and anticipation of the moment -- imminent now -- when I would stride across the stage and receive my diploma imprinted with those two Latin words: “Philosophiae Doctoris.” And I was filled with something else: I really had to pee. Bad.

The ceremony was about to start, but I decided it would be better to make a fast break for the men’s room now, rather than have to get up in the middle of the program (not ruling out the nightmarish possibility of needing to excuse myself right as Dean Thompson would call my name.)

Walking quickly out the back and through the foyer, I entered the men’s room in full academic regalia. I found myself standing at the urinal next to two men even more splendidly attired than I, sartorially speaking. To my immediate right was A. Bartlett “Bart” Giamatti, President of Yale, and to his right was Cyrus Vance, former U.S. Secretary of State under President Carter, and then a member of the Yale Corporation.

I had walked by Giamatti's house on Hillhouse Avenue every morning for years on my way to the Sociology Department, but had seldom seen him -- and never like this. Except for a certain tinkling-on-porcelain, it was silent for awhile. Then Bart said to Cy, “I think this may be the year for the Sox."

That was the year the Boston Red Sox came closer to winning the World Series without actually doing so than any team in history. They came within one strike. The Mets won.

A year later Giamatti, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, resigned the Yale Presidency to become President of the National League, and shortly thereafter Commissioner of Baseball. Giamatti's name became a household word when he permanently banned slugger Pete Rose from baseball for gambling on his own games -- a sanction that effectively kept Rose out of the Hall of Fame.

Eight days after the Pete Rose agreement was inked, Giamatti died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Some said Bart's personal anguish over the decision had killed him.

The 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s was dedicated to Giamatti’s memory. Pete Rose, via his lawyer, sent polite condolences to be quoted in Giamatti's New York Times obituary. At Yale, among other lavished honors, a prestigious endowed professorship in English literature was named for Bart.

In late summer of 2004, I found myself standing with a champagne glass in the Searle Center at Duke Medical School. I had dropped by the reception for Dick Brodhead, lately of New Haven and about to be inaugurated President of Duke. Bill Fulkerson, the head of Duke Hospital, introduced Brodhead with these words: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I see here that Dr. Brodhead was formerly appointed the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University. Before I let him speak to you, I’d just like to say that if I ever get an endowed chair professorship around here, I would really like it to be named for a Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”
Ha, ha.

Brodhead stepped to the podium. “Thank you, Bill,” he said. “And one of my first priorities as President will be to have you named the Bud Selig Professor of Medicine.”

But then it was fall and time to get serious.

* * *
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone."
-- A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

1 comment:

William said...

This really is lovely. Finally made it to the site w/o interruption.

Few guys think about baseball without thinking of their fathers. In a culture in which sons don't need to be taught to hunt and automobile mechanics requires a special computer, baseball and its appreciation may be one of the few intergenerational sharing things we have left. When the Sox one in '04 I had wished that my long-suffering dad had been around to see it.

I was lousy baseball player, mainly because I' as blind as a bat (no pun intended). This disappointed my father no end, of course, but it did keep me out of the army during the Vietnam war.

Incidentally, on this weekend Bull Durham was voted all-time best baseball movie. And it is!