July 15, 2010

This Game.

I’m through writing obits and remembrances for the year.
I have relatives in the hospital who are fighting for their lives these past months. Bob Sheppard, Harvey Pekar, George Steinbrenner all died within the last five days and although none of these were young men cut off in their prime, I just want to write and think about something present, something alive, and maybe even forward-looking.
So it’s strange to pick a subject that is nearly as old as the country itself.
The National League beat the AL for the first time in 13 years this week.
-I’ve heard more than one person on my morning subway ride remark “who cares.”
Well, I still do.
PBS has wisely rerun Ken Burns’ epic documentary simply entitled “Baseball” every Wednesday night, in single episodic installments (as it originally aired in 1995.) It is a detailed and perceptive history of a deceptively simple game that more and more young people see as boring and obtuse with each passing generation.

I’ve never told anybody this, but I have to confess that when the last players’ strike hit, I really thought I might be done with watching Baseball. I have one childhood friend who has stuck by his disgust to this day, and refuses to watch or follow any series or even a single game. In the mid 1990s Baseball asked for a lot of my time and attention, and once again ungratefully reminded me,( as if I had even partly forgotten,) -that it was principally a business and as such, didn’t care about me and my hopes for it. Baseball, in that half year of 1994 on into 1995 seemed to say to me “I don’t even care if you’re not watching, I still go on.”
The weeks and months passed. “And yes,” I said to the old timers, the mustache Petes, the “old fellers” at the Elk’s Head bar in Williamsburg Brooklyn “This IS worse than the Giants and the Dodgers leaving New York.” -Because at least the Giants and Dodgers packed up and went some place to play. -At the very least those teams continued playing. The Bar’s owner, Joe Genna, a retired boxer and great, great man in my estimation asked me, “Why do you even care?” I told Mr. Genna, I’ve never had a reason, I just do.

Just who does have a reason for loving any thing or any body?

I attended my very first ballgame with a man who wasn’t my uncle, but was much more than that and considerably more than any kind of simple blood relation to me. Santiago Pomonti, was a hardworking, tough talking Venezuelan who worked long hours and liked to argue with people until the veins on his head pushed out at his porkpie hat, threatening to pop it off his head like a cork from a bottle. My first game; the very first baseball game that I can ever remember going to or watching, was at Shea Stadium. I remember that I was cold. Santiago had bought me a plastic Mets novelty batting helmet, and I poured my twenty or so toy soldiers out of their tattered plastic bag and into the helmet for the duration. Santiago allowed me to stand in my seat the whole game.
The Mets lost. It was a Saturday I think although probably not, and the Astros destroyed them 9 to 2. That much is etched clearly in memory.
That’s all I remember about Shea that day: -The loss, -Santiago keeping the lousy box score on a newspaper, -and the unwelcoming steepness of Shea stadium’s upper deck.
It wasn’t much of a magical memory. On the ride home, Santiago drove his forest green 60s era Volvo westward, talking a blue streak about the Mets and their significance, as New York City stretched its sky scraper arms around us as we descended from what must have been the 59th street bridge. The man loved to drive. The front seat of his car was his cigar parlor, and even seat-belted in, I slid around quite a bit as he drove up the FDR highway. Santiago talked about the New York Giants, the Polo grounds and he talked about Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers and Ebbits, and my namesake Sandy Koufax. He went on about things I couldn’t know anything about, things that had gone on before I was born. He told me about the Mets’ team logo, which was taken to honor the Giants, and the royal blue of the cap, in deference to the Dodgers of Brooklyn. I couldn’t understand why there was a National League and an American League, “didn’t both words mean the same thing?” I couldn’t understand why Black people hadn’t been allowed to do the things he was talking about for so long, -and about that, he said little.
Santiago and I were in the middle of a variation of Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First’ routine due to my inability to understand that the All Star game was not a game between teams per se, but between representative players from the two leagues when I saw it for the first time: Yankee stadium.
From the pale green wrought iron work of the Macombs Dam bridge, it came into view. It looked like a castle, with copper accents. I asked my uncle what were all the flags: “Pennants,” he said. I didn’t ask him what pennants were, I assumed they had something to do with the “ligas” Santiago kept trying to explain to me. I stared in wonder, it looked so creepy and old, and to my greedy child’s eyes, very nice.

“There’s no game today.” Santiago said, as I followed the ballpark with my eyes. I asked him every question I could think of about the Yankees and he grudgingly complied as we passed Jerome avenue and veered down further into the South Bronx.

My old boss at Kern-Rockenfield, John Kern, once said to me that baseball was a tough game to be bad at, meaning -not that it was easy, -but that it hurt deeply to fail at baseball in a way that it could not hurt in other sports. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years since he said it to me. It’s one of those things that has become “truer” with the passage of time.
The cruelest and most negative assessments I’ve ever been subject to as a human being, were for my baseball playing. I have no “natural” talents for this game. This game that requires an obsessive watchfulness, keen timing and a kinetic awareness of one’s physical position in space relative to actual moving and potentially moving elements and people on the field. This is where baseball’s greatest myths of fairness lie. All the exercise, conditioning and training were never going to make the average kid into a Reggie Jackson, not for all the wanting, sweating and praying in the world. But hard work, studious learning and diligence are indeed rewarded by this game, if only on a purely neighborhood level. Conversely, lack of effort off and on the field is punished and ridiculed. One’s failures become uniquely emblematic in baseball. My frustrations with the game’s fundamentals, throwing, catching and hitting, came early and have remained with me for life. Playing with kids who did it well, and who had already learned by closely watching others, and in silent monk-like drilling sessions meant there was no one willing to explain simple concepts like using one’s own mid section as a line of demarcation indicating when to flip a glove’s fingers up, or down to properly field an oncoming ball. Nobody, not one friend, not one kid in my old neighborhood ever took the time to explain even the basic rules of the game and its idiosyncrasies. I had to learn those things from watching the Yankees on WPIX and concentrating on the ramblings of Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White, who were as likely to talk about restaurants and vacation spots as they were about the game in front of them.
My memories of all my childhood friends who excelled at baseball are punctuated with vignettes of them tossing a ball up and down, fielding grounders by throwing a ball against a wall or curb.

I did none of those things.

I only played baseball when I was asked to. I have never, not once in my life organized a game. I gave no physical or instinctual part of myself over to it. I never put the work in. I learned, -much too late, that unlike our prehistoric ancestors, we actually work at skills to play any game, not play a game to work at those skills. It was a heartbreaking insight and one of those many things that go unsaid in application and go unexplained; like the infield fly rule, the ground rule triple, or why if a left-handed pitcher fakes to first base and turns and looks at third, it can be ruled a balk.
My memories of losing games I played in, of being relegated to a non presence deep in the outfield for my own sake, are lessons in humiliation that I will never be thankful for, even as I recognize their possible necessity.

If I ever have a son, my first words on the field to him will be:
“This game is a game of bad feelings and blame. It asks that you succeed on its terms, not your own. This game is a glimpse into all the unfairness, joy and disappointment of the world to come. Try to remember it’s only a game to people who lose.”

...and I'll try to remember to tell him, "I love this game."
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