Between the incident in Arlington and the death of Dick Williams, I’m in a rather black mood, not really sure what I can say about either. In the case of the former, I can talk about the wasteful tragedy of dying for a foul ball, even if, especially if, you were trying to get one for your kid. As for the latter, I could give you a career retrospective that you’ve seen elsewhere and probably don’t care much about anyway. There are things about the world and our lives in it that I don’t like, or understand, and don’t know how to write about, and maybe I shouldn’t try.
I grew up in a large apartment complex. When I was very young, it was a clean place to live with decent people, family people, fathers and mothers and children, but even in a prosperous suburban town, a section can go rapidly downhill and you don’t see it happening until after it’s too late. The family people moved out. My parents wouldn’t or couldn’t leave—they were involved in their own lives and didn’t really understand what was happening, couldn’t see the thugs or the drug dealers coming in, didn’t understand that I stopped playing outside after a certain point because of the risk of being accosted—“accosted” is a nice way of saying getting beaten up and having your bicycle stolen. Before that, I had friends. We’d trade baseball cards, and parents would call across the pond at dusk when it was time for the children to come home.
There were two young people I didn’t know well who I would see around the development sometimes, one a 15-year-old boy, the other a 6-year-old girl. The boy didn’t belong there. He didn’t live in the complex, but he knew people who lived there, I guess, and would loiter about. He didn’t seem bad, just aimless and immature in his red Adidas shirts. The girl was the youngest in a family of five. She had brothers who were much older, rough, dangerous-seeming guys—I stayed away from them—and a wiry, worn leather father who seemed to hold some sort of menial job that afforded the time to be angry. I don’t recall seeing or hearing about a mother. The girl seemed a typical 6-year-old. Unremarkable, though perhaps with a bit of an edge to her already given her family. She had long black hair and a missing front tooth.
Each building had a basement with coin-operated washers and dryers. The rooms were small and hot and smelled—well, not bad, actually, like warm dryer lint. But they were barely illuminated by a cheap, dim light bulb, windowless, with only one exit. After awhile my family got their own washer and dryer and I didn’t go down there anymore. One warm spring day around twilight, the 6-year-old girl did go down there, for some reason, with the 15-year-old boy. After, they used words to describe what he did to her that I wasn’t old enough to understand.
All these years later, I am unsure why the police were not involved, or what they did if they were. I never saw the little girl again, though I was told that she had nightmares, would wake up screaming of snakes and spiders. I heard the boy was in hiding and the older brothers on the hunt, letting everyone know that they planned to do awful violence to him when he was found.
I don’t know what happened to the girl, if she ever got over it, if time healed her. I don’t know if the brothers ever caught up to the boy. It just faded away. There were no stories on the evening news, no state legislators passing laws banning laundry rooms, and life went on. My playmates moved away, almost certainly for reasons that had nothing to do with what happened—they were already going, fading out like ghosts, going on to other lives in, I hoped at the time, better places. I no longer traded baseball cards. There was no one to trade with. I worried about getting home from school without being stopped. A family moved into the apartment downstairs. The older boy had a paper route and sold drugs. Sometimes I forgot the incident ever happened. Some days, like tonight, 30 years on, I remember, and I ask why. There is no point in asking in why.
Sometimes I criticize my parents about not moving out earlier. We did, eventually. It was too late for me to ever get over the feeling that something was always lurking just around the corner, that home is not just the place where you live, but a crumbling fortress. They seem to feel guilty about it, claim they didn’t understand what was happening, and yet, I understand. Kids ask for toys and skateboards and video games. I asked for all of those things, but I also asked for a house. Not every father and mother, not even the best ones, can make a house appear just because their child needs someplace in this world to feel safe.
One day, the roof fell in. Only my sister and I were home. I climbed over water-soaked debris, avoiding live wires to pull her out. We moved after that. Too late, too late. Maybe, if you’re a father or mother, having done everything you could, but having found that it was not enough and that enough was beyond your power, or your perception, or both, and wanting so desperately to do everything you can for your child, you lean out a little too far to catch a foul ball. I cannot give you a home. I cannot make you safe in the dark basements of the world. But look: a baseball. It’s something.
Or maybe it’s not any of that. Maybe the universe is just cold, unfair, random. Maybe sometimes you just fall and die for no reason at all. Maybe a baseball is just a stupid baseball, and it’s not a good reason to die, but it’s no worse than any of the other reasons one exits this world. I don’t know. I told you, I don’t know how to write about these things. Sometimes I think I don’t know how to write about anything. But I do know this:
Dick Williams is dead. He made the Hall of Fame three years ago and got to enjoy it for a little while, not long enough. A fan is dead in Arlington. According to published reports, he was at the game with his young son. The whole of life is a series of entrances and exits to basement rooms, punctuated by long periods in which we forget our actual location. That’s it, that’s all. End of story.
Derek Jeter has 2,998 career hits.