April 22, 2011
Baseball, Boyhood, and Bullpen Carts
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Josh Wilker is the author of the memoir Cardboard Gods (now out in paperback from Algonquin Books) and of a forthcoming book for Soft Skull Press on the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. He continues to explore and hide from his life through his baseball cards at cardboardgods.net.
A few years ago, I went to a late September game at Wrigley between the Cubs and the Rockies, two teams I don’t care about. Both had been mathematically eliminated for weeks. Through the first several innings, I sat in a row near the back of the lower deck, next to a friend from work. Eventually, rain delays and prolonged, instantly forgettable rallies and incessant pitching changes and the inability of either mediocre side to win during regulation began to whittle the already meager crowd down closer to nothing. My friend got up to leave as the grounds crew once again hauled the tarp across the field somewhere in the vicinity of the 10th or 11th inning. Time had begun to blur.
“You going?” I said, surprised, even though most of the others scattered around us were doing the same.
Alone, I began creeping a few rows at a time toward the sporadic, inessential action. By the 13th inning I was sitting in a wet seat near the field on the first base side, no one else in my row. I very rarely get this close. I could see the raindrops on the batting helmet of the on-deck hitter. A rare calm came over me. Mostly I lurk around in the back rows of existence in a low-level perpetual cringe, vaguely braced for invisible blows, but once in a while there are moments when I can imagine that time has somehow been defeated, that the matter at hand, vivid and meaningless, will remain undecided indefinitely, and I’ll never have to deal with real life.
I’ve shaped my life around this notion. For the last few years I’ve spent most of my time outside the essentials of work, sleep, food, and pain-killing sit-com reruns dwelling repeatedly and at great length on my childhood baseball cards, as if in doing so I can cheat time and loop back to when the cards were first coming to me, when I could almost believe I was a miraculous special exception, exempt from time.
As a kid, I felt closest to this belief when surrounded by baseball. Baseball carried me through long Vermont winters by way of my cards and thoughts about my favorite team, the Red Sox, and the baseball encyclopedia and baseball biographies from the nearby college library. I played little league in the spring, and then in the summer, after little league season ended, I got on a bus with my big brother to go see our dad, anticipating the yearly highlight of the trip, a game of negligible import featuring the terrible late 1970s Mets at Shea.
These once-a-year games at Shea began to come back to me as I sat alone at Wrigley, shivering from the damp cold and from the excitement of my private impossible hope that the tie would never be broken. Each team kept calling in pitchers from the bullpen, one after the other, in what would turn out to be, at least according to my later attempt to hang on to something from the game, a record-setting procession of hurlers. Generally, pitching changes occur these days to the accompaniment of pulsating heavy metal explosions, thick-muscled relievers charging toward the infield as if intending to shatter Joe Theismann’s tibia and fibula. This was not the case that day at Wrigley, especially as the game wore on.
Instead, as pitcher after pitcher trudged onto the grassy sog, the stoppages came to resemble the downbeat mound replacements of my youth, when fellows from the bullpen generally resembled recreational bowlers and melancholy vice principals, and their entrances into games were somehow homely and desultory, verging on aimless, as if they might just as easily wander into the stands as onto the mound. By the 13th inning at Wrigley, in a kind of hypnotic trance induced by the endless parade of ineffectual twirlers, I was thinking about how, at some stadiums in the 1970s such as Shea, the inherent passivity of the bullpen entrances of the era reached an apex—or a nadir, depending on your preferences—with the use of a little electrical cart in which relievers rode as dazed, somber passengers, as if to cross the expanse of the outfield on foot would have sapped too much of their limited energies.
This recollection broke off with two outs in the bottom of the 13th with a burst of activity on the field, Aramis Ramirez singling off Ramon Ramirez, the 20th pitcher to enter the game. Matt Murton came to the plate next and began working the count in his favor. It seemed like things might be moving toward a conclusion. The sparse gathering roused from near-silence to the outer limits of its capabilities: murmuring. Then there was a burst of shouting behind me, something that ended with these words:
“You’ll never play baseball again!”
I thought at first it was the kind of drunken barking loosed at ballgames in a jocular pantomime of rage. Then a wiry man, bristling with anger, stalked past me down the steps of the aisle and grabbed the shoulder of a blond teen-aged boy sitting three rows in front of me, by himself, like me, a fan who’d moved down close and didn’t want to leave. The kid was wearing an Aramis Ramirez jersey.
“You hear me? You’ll never play baseball again!” the man shouted at the kid. “Now get in the car!” The kid just sat there, staring at the game. The man hit him hard in the face with an open right hand.
* * *
When I think of my own father beside my brother and me, the three of us in the predominantly empty stands of Shea Stadium during a Mets game in the 1970s, I see an uncomfortable bespectacled sociologist suffering in his blue, long-sleeve, button-down shirt through a day of things he disliked or even despised: subway rides, baseball, crowds, mid-summer humidity, sunburn, gross profiteering, noise pollution, air pollution, garbage, stenches, drunkards, dolts, loudmouths, slobs, the masses, the various and sundry opiates of the masses, and, last but not least, presumably, the idea, supported by the ample evidence of his offspring’s contrarily enthusiastic orientation toward many of these miseries, that one or both of his sons might grow up to live a life of meaningless escapist diversion.
During our once-a-year visits to see him in his book-glutted studio apartment in Manhattan, he dragged us to museums and subtitled foreign films, hoping we’d take to the finer creations of the human mind, but we generally saw them as crucibles to labor through so that we could get to the payoff of huge greasy slices at Ray’s on 11th Street and whatever installment of The Pink Panther was in theaters and, most of all, a trip on the groaning 7 Train to Shea. Our father complied with this arrangement. At Shea, besides grimacing and jabbing his fingers into his ears every time one in the unending stream of screaming LaGuardia jets passed just above our heads, Dad didn’t complain. He let us be fans.
* * *
At the Cubs game when a man struck a boy a few rows in front of me, I didn’t do anything. I stared at Matt Murton in the batter’s box. I’m a fan and nothing but baseball can happen when I’m a fan.
“Get in the car!” the man barked again. “We’ve been waiting in the car for an hour! You think the whole world revolves around you? Get in the goddamn car! I’ve got kids that need to get to bed.”
The man drew closer.
“We’ll leave you in the city,” he hissed into his kid’s ear. Then, using his hitting hand to give the kid’s jerseyed shoulder a shove, the man straightened up and away from the kid.
In the batter’s box, Matt Murton took another pitch. The kid in the Aramis Ramirez jersey crossed my vision, he and the man who’d hit him moving up the aisle past me, the man with a tight grip on the kid’s arm. After they passed by, I heard one last thing.
“Don’t think I won’t break your fucking shoulder,” the man said.
Matt Murton trotted to first with a walk, but then Jacque Jones stranded the would-be winning run, represented by Aramis Ramirez, at second. I went down below the stands and called my wife from a pay phone to tell her the game was still going.
“It might go forever,” I said.
“I just saw some kid’s childhood end,” I also told her.
I went back up to the game, this time sitting on the third base side behind the home team’s dugout. I sat there, shivering. The Rockies scored two runs.
In the middle of the 14th the remains of the crowd sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the second time. I sang along. I don’t care if I never get back.
In the bottom of the 14th the pitcher’s spot came up with two men out and Cubs shortstop Ronny Cedeno on first. Two boys with their hats turned inside out to pray for rallies had wandered into my row.
The game paused for a moment, apparently to allow for some decisions from one or both of the dugouts. I wondered if there was going to be another pitching change. That possibility and maybe also the two boys with their caps turned inside out brought me back to what I’d been thinking about before watching the kid in the Aramis Ramirez jersey get hit. I started thinking about my favorite thing about those long-ago pointless contests at Shea.
At Shea in the late 1970s, a pitching change by the home team was facilitated by the use of a small electric cart that was shaped like a giant baseball with a giant Mets cap. The cart moved slowly across the outfield grass carrying the likes of Skip Lockwood or Bob Apodaca as meandering organ music played. I loved it. During one of our visits to Shea, my father bought me a palm-sized plastic replica of this bullpen cart. Even when the game was still going on, I could barely take my eyes off of it. I remember riding the subway home from Shea that day, rolling the little plastic baseball-cap cart up and down my Toughskins lap. Of all the things that ever came to me, it might have been my favorite souvenir.
As I was wondering whatever became of it, the two boys with the inside-out rally caps got to their feet. I looked out to the field and then rose to my feet, too, as soon as I realized what was about to happen. The Cubs had virtually emptied their roster and were down to their last out with the pitcher’s spot due up. It seemed they would have no chance at prolonging the game, but Carlos Zambrano, who had pitched and lost the previous day’s game, was walking toward the plate to pinch-hit. Things weren’t hopeless. Zambrano had some pop in his bat. Everyone still in the park had seen him catch hold of one before. He could do it.
Soon, as it turned out, the game would end. Soon I would be walking through the rain over to Ashland to get a bus back to my neighborhood. The next day, attempting to find something from the game to hold onto, I would start trying to find out the record for most pitchers used in a single game. Eventually I would conclude that I had just seen more pitchers used by two sides in a single game than in any other game in the history of Major League Baseball.
But as Carlos Zambrano got into the batter’s box, I didn’t care about anything beyond the game. I had started the game not caring about anything in the game, but now all I wanted was for the game to go on. And Zambrano could do it. He could tie the game.
“Come on, big Z!” the eight-year-old standing closest to me yelled.
“Come on, Carlos!” I found myself yelling. I meant it. I was eight again. I cared. “Come on, big man, give it a ride!”
Zambrano lifted a fly ball to the outfield. Brad Hawpe settled under it, but just before the ball reached the end of its dim arc, Hawpe slipped on the wet grass. His right leg went out from under him, and his left knee buckled.
For most of the small number of people who experienced the events at Wrigley on September 30, 2006, the inconsequential game began to dissolve the moment it ended. But for me, the only part of the game I want to dissolve is the fly from Zambrano’s bat sinking into a stumbling fielder’s glove just inches above the grass. Let me mess with time for real just this once. Bring that little baseball-headed bullpen cart back into my hands, and bring that wiry man’s open hand back away from the face of the kid in the Aramis Ramirez jersey, and let me see Hawpe slipping just a little more than he actually did so that the ball can come free and Cedeno and Zambrano can be rounding the bases with all their might, the game still just barely alive.