Monthly archives: December 2007
I wonder if it’s the same way for a baseball player playing out the string. I mean I wonder if in the dregs of the schedule in a season that long ago collapsed into meaninglessness a player will just sort of mail in his efforts and start thinking about next season, about how next season is going to be different, full of good habits and sustained effort and thrilling results and, above all, meaning. That’s always been the thought about those inhabiting the realm of the mathematically eliminated, that they don’t play with the same intensity as those in the middle of a pennant race.
That may indeed be true of mediocrities. (Take it from a mediocrity.) But Rickey Henderson’s 1980 rookie card suggests it is not true of the greats. The photo in this card was taken during his rookie season in 1979. He made his debut that year in a midseason double-header that the A’s lost, part of Henderson’s career-opening seven-game losing streak. Henderson finally played in a major league win, then the A’s promptly lost Henderson’s next three games, won one, lost five more, won one, lost five more, won one, and lost five more. Overall, the A’s record in Henderson’s first 29 games was 4-25. This was, incredibly enough, not that far off par for the course for a putrid team that went 54-108 on the year. If anyone was going to start mailing in their efforts it would have been a player finishing out that dismal campaign.
And yet here is Henderson, the rookie, locked in, ready to battle. I didn’t know when I got this card that it would one day become, in theory anyway, my most valuable card. (In practice the scratches below his cocked elbow surely strip this legend’s rookie card of its value; near the end of my collecting days I started sorting each team into batting orders by year, and since none of my few last 1981 cards were A’s the 1980 Rickey had to take the brunt of the elements for the decades in which my cards and I were estranged.) But I have to believe that I liked the card at first sight, that the rookie’s odd crouch differed not only from most of the posed wax figure stances that had populated my cards to that point but differed also from the feeling that mathematical elimination was unavoidable, that life itself was a losing season. Here was an electric moment, full of possibility, a young man who’d so far known nothing but losing in the majors but who despite that was about to treat the next pitch, the next moment, as if it could not be more important.
I meant to share this card earlier, my first thought being that I’d pass it along on Christmas Day, which also happens to be Rickey Henderson’s birthday. But I’m the kind of guy who lets things slide, who daydreams through pitches and at-bats and games. Let’s face it, entire seasons have gone by without me ever really leaving the fetid cycle of impossible thoughts inside my skull. But anyway, here it is, a few days late, a Happy Rickey Henderson’s Birthday to all, and hopes for a Rickey Henderson New Year. Here’s hoping we let all the bad pitches pass and that when a good pitch comes along we jump on it.
—A feeling that the world around you is growing blurrier
—Wincing, grimacing, or any other facial affect seeming to reflect a sense of disgust and/or regret, as if you are still breathing in the fumes of a turd you just heaved to Steve Swisher, or as if you are bracing for Steve Swisher to hurl the turd back at you, or, worse, as if you no longer have the likes of even so much as Steve Swisher around and are instead staring from your demoted location into nothing but the blurred, uncertain future
—A persistent burning sensation
—A tendency to drift, passively, i.e., not by choice, i.e., as if you are constantly getting put on a bus and shipped to a realm of ever-lowering expectations
—A sense that your mounting failures are being recorded and will, ironically enough, be used to explain your imminent removal from the ranks of those whose efforts are worthy of being recorded
—A sense of being haunted by the promise of the past, as if you were drafted in the first round five years ago, or as if you led the Florida League in wins four years ago, or even as if you were your franchise's Farm Team Pitcher of the Month three years ago, but now you are no longer rising but at best are treading water, but more likely you are sinking, and this haunts you, because it wasn’t supposed to be like this, you and Steve Swisher staring at one another at the edge of the abyss, the residue of turd on your hand, or even worse, Steve Swisher and the hurled turd itself a fading memory of better times as you and your decaying posture and persistent burning sensation and sense of accruing losses watch the blurred world outside your bus window scroll past like the hiccuping loop of anonymous landscape in a cheap cartoon
—An increasing feeling of needing to go
If you find any or all of these symptoms familiar, you may be suffering from Urrea.
I can certainly understand how someone could get the impression that I have hoisted myself upon the fork of life, cooked. I’ve always given off that impression. I remember one time, long ago, when I was sharing a small apartment with my brother in Manhattan, on Second Avenue and Ninth Street. I was working part-time at the liquor store, which meant most days I had nothing in particular to do until my shift started in the evening. Some days I’d write, some days I’d try to write, some days who the hell knows what I’d do. Watch TV, sleep, pace, channel Onan, worry, do a few pushups, stare out the window. Anyway on one of those days I spilled out of the apartment building door a few minutes before my shift began. (Oh, how good I had it and I didn’t even know it, work a five minute walk away.) A couple young tough-looking Hispanic guys were sauntering past.
"Damn," one of them said to me. "Look like you getting your ass kicked by life."
Another night I was moping down Ninth Street after work, and a woman from the bar I hung out at happened to walk by. I didn’t notice her, since I was staring at the ground, but she stopped me and told me that I looked like I was on my way to find a corner to curl up and die in.
"Really? I’m fine," I said.
A few years later I quit the liquor store the day after a particularly confrontational encounter with a gang of shoplifters. I’d been ambivalent about the liquor store job for a while, and getting involved in another in a long line of racially charged, violence-fringed encounters with a pack of teenagers trying to steal Alize was the straw that broke me. When I told the owner I was quitting he was disappointed, not just that he was losing an employee but that I was admitting defeat. By this point I had come to consider the owner, Morty, like a member of my family. I think he felt the same way about me.
"I feel sorry for you, Joshua," Morty said quietly. "Backing down like this. It’s not good. You’re setting yourself up for a hard life, Joshua."
I don’t remember how I replied to him, but in my revisions of the moment I explain to him (or to myself) that fighting off teenagers trying to steal bottles of sickly sweet liqueur isn’t my battle. After I quit I spent the summer in Vermont going slowly nuts. I hoped to write a novel, but had no ideas and instead inched through each day by reading old issues of Sports Illustrated in a nearby college library until the evening, when sitcom reruns and beer took me the rest of the way. At the end of the summer I went back to New York City and begged for my ex-girlfriend to take me back and begged Morty to give me my job back. They both agreed, but after a few months my girlfriend showed up one night at my apartment, handed me a Budweiser tall boy, and told me that we had to talk. For a couple months after that I took my liquor store pay in bottles of Maker’s Mark and listened to a lot of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, but then when that got old I quit the liquor store, this time for good. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I had no skills, no prospects. I didn’t see a fork in the road. I didn’t see any road at all.
But yet on I went, so to speak. I kept writing, fell into significant debt going back to grad school, taught a little, kept writing, lived for a year in a cabin in the woods, came back to the city, kept writing, worked various low-skill jobs, fell in love, kept writing, got married, got a scanner, started scanning pictures of the baseball cards I grew up with, kept writing.
I still don’t really see a fork in the road. I guess I never really have. Maybe this is the reason people occasionally tell me I seem to be in the final stages of an irreversible capitulation. But perhaps writing every day is a way to strike a pose as if there is a fork in the road, and as if there is some idea of how to deal with that fork in the road.
As usual my Cardboard Gods offer a model for this notion. Here stands Ray Corbin, forgotten hurler of yore. He is at a crossroads of life, though he may not be fully aware or at all aware of it. He is four seasons into what will be a five year major league career. In his first season, 1971, he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. In his second season he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. In his third season he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. An incredible feat! Yet here he stands after his first season in which he did not win 8 games nor strike out 83 batters. But if Ray Corbin is aware of any omens of uncertainty and transience in the ending of his unusual streak of comforting sameness he does not show it. Similarly, his beaming upward-looking gaze shows no cognizance that the end is near. Instead he stands there, striking his pose with the assured solidity of a bronze statue. It doesn’t matter to him if there is a fork in the road or not, or even if there is a road. If there is a mountain in front of him, so be it: On he will go, cutting a path through with his indestructible chin.
The [Paul] Mitchell Report
Summary of the [Paul] Mitchell Report:
Point 1: Nothing is occurring. A slouching man offers his right arm to the viewer, the arm limp and possibly burdensome, as if it has fallen asleep. Two other men loiter in the background. Visible also are seats, all of them empty. Presumably all the seats in the stadium are empty. No one bears witness. No one cares. Perhaps beyond the frame of the photo there are other men standing around.
Point 2: I never had homework as a kid, at least none that I can remember. After going to a regular class for first grade I became a charter member of a rural hippie-founded elementary school classroom where there were no grades (as in grades awarded) and no grades (as in first grade, second grade, etc.), and the general idea was that we would flourish by growing wild, in whichever direction we wanted to grow. Anyway unlike children today I never had to lug a giant backpack back and forth to school and I had a lot of free time to disappear into the strange flat dioramas of cards such as this one featuring Paul Mitchell. I wonder how all those hours spent staring at these miniature rectangles of stopped time affected my development.
Point 3: It has become unusual for nothing to be occurring. They don’t make cards like this anymore. Now every photo is of a moment of drama, an action shot. Action shots leap from the frame, adding noise to the wider noise beyond their borders. Still-life dioramas quietly invite viewers with time on their hands to enter. I imagine standing around on the green grass shown here. I imagine a strange peace. I pose. I linger.
Point 4: I guess I started getting homework in junior high, but I don’t remember ever doing any. Eventually my mom was called into school and all my seventh grade teachers sat in a circle of desks around her and took turns expressing their disappointment in me. My mom kept this to herself for years, and somehow I continued to skate by scholastically, gathering Cs and a couple Bs here and there, not running into the wall of an F until my sophomore year in high school, when I neglected to complete, or even start, a big idiotic project involving planning an imaginary trip to a far-off city. For some reason the F didn’t prevent me from gaining admittance for the following year to Northfield Mount Hermon, the boarding school where my brother had just graduated. Maybe they overlooked my lackluster grades and my mumbling, unimpressive interview, happy to get the tuition money, for which my mom had to take a loan that took many years to pay off.
Point 5: We linger here where something has departed, all of us posing our empty poses. We exist in an aftermath, depleted. The championship years, which we were too late for, are over. We were throw-ins in a deal sealing the end of those years. The Superduperstar has departed. We have arrived.
Point 6: At boarding school I started getting tons of homework. I did some of it, I guess, but if there was a big project assigned to me I let it slide and let it slide until the day before it was due, usually around the middle of the term or the end of the term, at which point I’d swallow some Vivarin pills (or, on one regrettable occasion, chop up and snort some Vivarin pills) with other slackers in my dorm and stay up all night, mostly fucking around, and by dawn’s sickly light have some feeble facsimile of a report done. It’s fitting that the action that got me kicked out of that place—smoking pot—came during official Study Hours. If there was work to be done, I avoided it (occasionally with the aid of drugs) until it was this huge anxious specter looming over me, at which point I flailed blindly at it (occasionally with the aid of drugs).
Point 7: We will move on elsewhere soon. We will experience expansion. We will lose and lose.
Point 8: I took some time off from school after getting kicked out near the end of my senior year. During that time I tried acid for the first time. When the trip started kicking in my friends and I were near a playground. We got on some swings. While we were on those swings childhood returned, and not just the memory of childhood but the full feel of it. I was ecstatic, changed. When I resumed my schooling a few weeks later, enrolling in a small state school in northern Vermont, the embers of that feeling were still glowing. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to learn. I also wanted to continue doing drugs, and I did, mostly hallucinogens of the mild and not so mild variety, plus occasional gigantic helpings of beer from kegs. I remember one evening, running with a friend through a hard-dirt parking lot, both of us already high and holding our empty personal keg-mugs. Someone asked us where we were going. "We've got a buzz to catch," my friend said. Laughing, I felt like my running feet weren't even touching the ground.
Point 9: Soon enough our release will be tendered. Given a moment like this, free of meaning, we linger as long as we can.
Magic Johnson in . . . The Nagging Question
The Basketball Kid Takes a Stand
Episode Four: Time Running Out
I spent two summers living with my grandfather, spending all my free time sinking easy solitary baskets. During the second summer my grandfather had to use an oxygen machine to breathe. The following summer he sold the house and moved into an old folks' home. The summer after that he died.
The day before he died I had my first day of work at a fast food place called Art and Ollie’s Hot Dogs. Before the lunch rush I got trained on how to use a wall-mounted metal press to slice potatoes into would-be French fries. The guy who was training me told me it was his 30th birthday. He had thick glasses and seemed miserable.
"I get my anger out using this thing," he muttered. He yanked down on the lever and finger-sized slices of potato came out the bottom and thunked into a steel bowl.
Meanwhile, there are just a few ticks left on the clock. The home team is down by one point. The Basketball Kid breaks free of the scrum of bodies at midcourt and catches his teammate’s inbounds pass. As he catches the pass he is moving in the direction of the wrong basket, and he considers continuing in that direction and laying in a victory-sealing basket for the other team. He considers it like a weary commuter might entertain thoughts of falling in front of an oncoming train. So easy to end the monotony, the commuter might think. To be or not to be, wonders The Basketball Kid.
After I watched the birthday man fill a few metal bowls with sliced potatoes, I was placed at the counter. My job was to take customer orders and call them out to the owner, Art, who was manning the grill.
"Louder," he kept imploring me. "You gotta shout out the orders louder. ‘Hamburger!’ ‘Hot dog!’ ‘French fries!’ Like that!"
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t raise my voice to call out those words. The place kept getting more and more crowded.
"Louder! Louder!" Art said. "Come on!"
During the course of the game The Basketball Kid has begun wondering who he is, and how he came to be here, and where he is destined to go. He has begun to wonder why high school has gone on for far longer than it is supposed to, and why every game is The Big Game, and why he always manages to fling in the winning shot with defenders draped all over him and the buzzer sounding. He has begun to feel doomed to forever repeat empty rituals, the needle of existence stuck on some kind of cosmic scratch: Triumph and then Triumph and then Triumph and then
I couldn’t sleep the night after my first day at Art and Ollie’s. I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to shout food the next day. I don’t remember, but it’s possible I even prayed for something to happen to save me from going back in there. When I got the news in the morning that my grandfather had died, relief was among my emotions.
"I can’t come in today," I told Art over the phone. "Actually, I won’t be able to come in again at all. My grandfather just died."
The last four words of my statement freed me of blame. (Sometimes I wonder if my only real ambition in life is to be free of blame.)
"Hey, I’m sorry," Art said. What else could he say? The whole scenario worked so well that I killed my grandfather all over again a couple years later to blamelessly quit a job loading trucks for UPS.
Triumph? The Basketball Kid turns and faces up-court. He can see a path. He can see the whole moment of triumph before it unfolds. He will dribble left past a pick to lose his defender, spin to lose the man shifting over to guard him on the switch, drive the lane and take flight. But he doesn’t move. He holds the ball. He cradles it. Time is running out.
(Wherever we are, time is running out. And wherever we are, we’re at least partially someplace else, until one day we’re nowhere at all. Take Mike Newlin. Mike Newlin was shipped to the Knicks after most of the material for this 1981 card was compiled, and the next year he was out of the league altogether.)
For years after he died I dreamt about my grandfather. He kept getting older and older in the dreams. He kept seeming more and more stunned by life, his eyes wide, his lips moving as if he had something to tell me but couldn’t quite get it out. I had to help him walk, his body leaning into mine. I woke with the feeling of the weight of his flesh still dissolving from my own. Then I’d get up and go into some transitory job because by then I had become able to shout hamburger and hot dog as loud as necessary, so to speak. I mean whatever it was inside me that held me back from being some guy yelling the word hamburger had gotten dulled. If necessary, I could be the shithead yelling hamburger; I could work. By now I’m almost a decade older than the guy I’d pitied for spending his birthday angrily slicing potatoes. I’ve spent many a birthday doing the same, more or less.
Anyway I wish I still had my grandfather’s pine-tree basketball rim nearby. It’s a wish I often have. To kill the slow hours. To pretend there are an endless supply of hours to kill. To dream The Basketball Kid.
But The Basketball Kid is sick of being dreamed. He holds the ball. The crowd looks on, their eyes as wide as those of the stunned purgatorial ghost of my grandfather. They try to shout but no sounds come out. The Basketball Kid gently lays the ball on the varnished wood floor and walks toward the exit. He is outside in the cold when the buzzer sounds, affirming defeat.
The Basketball Kid Takes a Stand
Episode Three: The Rise of The Basketball Kid
Previous to that moment there had only been an aimless murmur of voices in the gym. Suddenly the murmur spiked, went weird. I’d never heard the sound before and hope to never hear it again: A generalized, ingrown gasp, like a note from a choir on a record played backwards. I pressed onward, dribbling, still preposterously open, ignoring.
I stopped just inside the foul line and hoisted the side-holstered push shot that all kids use before they get the hang of a real jump shot. Improbably, the basketball grazed the inside of the rim and nestled through the net. The strange sound that had risen up all around me ceased. I turned, smiling, expecting to see my teammates smiling back. Jesus, the look on their faces. My own smile congealed. The players on the other team stared one more beat, still stunned, then started spasming with laughter. Eventually the scoreboard operator added the tally to the already swollen number beneath the word HOME.
From that point on the losses began to blur together. We lost all our games that season, all but three the next season. By the time I got this Darryl Dawkins portrait in my last unironically purchased pack of trading cards I had begun to understand that my fate was sealed. Forever would I labor beneath scoreboards generating nauseating inequalities. Ninth grade was no different. Our freshman team lost every game. The following year my junior varsity team kept losing. The varsity coach, Viens, came into our locker room at halftime of a game we were losing pretty badly. He went down the line of all the guys on the team from my grade, listing faults, his mole-like face pinched into a particularly sour expression of pure disgust. Only two of us had been playing all along, since 7th grade. Me and Chris. Viens saved us for last.
"Wilker, I don’t notice you out there," he said. "You’re invisible."
"Chris," he said. "You’re stupid."
Chris had always been my mom’s favorite player. He was always the smallest kid on the court, and though he was something of a gunner, he always tried hard. Sometimes he tried so hard during our collective humiliations his face got red and he verged on tears, his unceasing drives into the crowded lane sometimes seeming like involuntary convulsions of grief. But Chris quit hoops at the end of that year, neglecting to try out to play for Viens on the varsity, and I wandered away to the boarding school that would eventually expel me. The summer after I got expelled I went to live with my grandfather, who had for the benefit of my brother and me nailed a backboard and a basketball hoop to a tree. The rim was the most forgiving rim in the history of the world. Almost any shot would fall dead upon contact with that rim and drop through the net as if collapsing from exhaustion. What was I going to do with my life? Who was I going to be? I avoided these questions. Instead, I went on outlandish imaginary scoring sprees, again and again, pretending I was someone else, some beleaguered, limping, indomitable hero battling long odds to lead his loyal teammates to victory. As had happened throughout my solitary childhood, sounds escaped my mouth as I played, the whispered approximations of crowd noises and ecstatic announcers and grateful exulting teammates. I was 17 years old. Finally my grandfather got me a job pumping gas. But I still got two days off a week, and I spent them the same way I'd been spending my free time before the start of my first full-time job. Reeking of pot smoke, hoisting jump shots, mumbling to myself, I imagined myself invisible to this world, instead forever rising in the universe within the universe where losses turn to wins.
continued in Mike Newlin
(continued from Episode One)
Episode Two: Origin of The Basketball Kid
Nothing is ever lost. Matter and energy change forms but endure. The soul leaves the body but endures. The drop of water jarred loose from the Great Waterfall returns to the Great Waterfall. The Great Waterfall flows forever and everywhere and nowhere.
So then where did the magic feeling in my fingers go? From 1974 to 1981, I’d buy a pack of baseball cards, slide a fingernail under the flap to break the brittle seal of glue, smell the first bloom of gum scent, catch my first glimpse of statistics and colored caps and uniforms. And my fingers tingled. And there was magic.
Until there wasn’t. I don’t have a single baseball card from after the summer of 1981. By September I was 13 years old, a freshman in high school, retreating from life. This Wayne Rollins card and a few other basketball cards from the same year comprise the last trading card purchase I made for years, until buying the occasional pack out of nostalgia in adulthood. I had never bought a pack of basketball cards before, mainly because they hadn’t sold them at the general store in my town, but also because throughout my childhood my favorite sport had always been baseball. But that was changing. Over the previous three years, since the beginning of junior high, I had finished up little league baseball and then found myself overmatched in Babe Ruth league baseball, had also lost interest in schoolwork, had watched my elementary school friends change into something more like acquaintances, and had taken part in no extracurricular school activities except for one: basketball. From 7th grade until the approximate time when I discovered marijuana about five years later, basketball was just about all I had at my disposal to try to counteract the feeling that I was in retreat from life, or that magic was in retreat from me.
Since I bought no other packs of basketball cards it’s safe to say that the feeling of magic that had carried me through years of collecting baseball cards until fizzling did not return with the switch to basketball cards. It’s possible that I bought this pack in early September of 1981. If I remember correctly, baseball cards always came out just before each season began; maybe basketball cards did, too. Maybe I bought the pack on my last day before the start of the school year, my first in high school.
I see myself going to school the day after gazing at this Wayne Rollins card and other basketball cards. Let’s say it was indeed the first day of high school. (To this day I still have dreams about this first day of high school.) That day I discovered I had been given a locker next to the locker of a pretty girl whose sudden growth of large breasts the year before had, I'm convinced, catalyzed my own puberty. Now I was right next to her, and would be every day for the entire year.
(The nexus of my recurring dreams of the first day of high school is always the unlocking of the locker. I can never get it open. I have lost my sheet with the combination on it. I keep twisting the combination lock, hoping to feel that tiny surrendering, that give, that happens when the combination is right and that would, if I ever got it, enable me to open the locker and start my miraculous second chance at high school. It’s a magic feeling in your fingers when you get the combination right. But in the dreams the magic is gone from my fingers. I have to go try to find the office, find someone who can give me my combination, but I always get bogged down and sidetracked, impeding bureaucracy multiplying, and I never get back to my locker, and the dream eventually unravels into something else, a shallower cluster of anxiety and frustration that more closely resembles my waking life.)
Other boys may have seen this fortuitous locker placement as an opportunity to get to know the girl, to befriend her, to eventually maybe even get in her pants. But I knew none of that was going to happen. By 9th grade I understood that any connection with girls and their boobs was going to have to be imaginary, an achingly painful realization that I fought with everything in my prodigious arsenal of self-delusion, the peak—or I guess climax would be a more apt word—of these efforts always directly preceding the moment of aftermath and of clearest self-reflection: I am and always will be nothing but a lonely masturbator. And so instead of striking up a conversation with the girl with the locker adjacent to mine, I said nothing aloud yet perversely exulted to myself. Every day I can sneak glances then rush home and beat off!
I guess my path never was that of the All American Boy, but perhaps that moment of perverse private exultation by my new locker proved to be some point of no return in my divergence from that path that leads through hard work and moral virtue to all the bounty of The American Dream. And maybe this moment of divergence is the moment when the most All American of All American Boys, The Basketball Kid, was born. Some heroes of legend gain their powers from experiments gone awry, others from inadvertent contact with power-bestowing gods. Maybe The Basketball Kid sprang into being when my final departure from the magic tingling of childhood and from the path of the All American Boy sparked the creation of some negative-image inner world buried deep inside me, blooming as I snuck my first greedy, leering, locker-tit glance.
If nothing is ever lost, maybe the magic that seeped from my fingers over the course of my childhood, some last residue of it on the Wayne Rollins card at the top of the page, maybe the very last of it traveling from my fingertips to the combination dial on my locker on my first day of school, went to another world, a universe within a universe where losses turn to wins.
There, a heretofore nondescript youngster of my approximate build and hair-color and height puts his fingers to his locker. He decides, for the heck of it, to try to open his locker without first looking at the combination printed on his mimeographed class schedule. There is a fragile buoyancy in this nondescript boy, a lightness, something you could imagine going either way as he grows, either toward exuberance or sullen inwardness. In other words, he’s 13 years old. And for whatever reason, call it magic if you want, the boy twists the combination dial in exactly the right succession, his eyes closed as he does it, and on the third of the three necessary twists feels the tiny give of the dial. A pretty ample-bosomed girl at the locker next to his notices his attempt. Her eyes widen as he pulls open the locker.
"Wow," the pretty girl says, laughing.
"Must be my lucky day!" the boy exclaims. He feels it in his fingers. As he and the girl smile at one another the tingling spreads to his entire body. It feels like more than just luck. It feels like he could unlock just about anything.
Voice of the Mathematically Eliminated
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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About The Author
Email: jawilker68 at yahoo.com