I spent two baseball seasons in New York and enjoyed them most on Saturday mornings, when the city composed itself with a long, slow breath.
Maybe it was a sigh.
Either way, on this particular Saturday the sidewalks twenty-seven floors below the apartment window were less cluttered, the taxi hailers appeared in a hurry but not altogether panic-stricken, the dog walkers smiled and nodded at passersby as their little city pooches, pleased not to be rushed, did their morning business. Across 90th Street, a broad patch of emerald green—conspicuously so against the old brick and brownstone and grit—hosted a game of soccer, filling the neighborhood with cries of encouragement, whoops, and applause.
The sky was gray, a leaden touch to a yawn-and-stretch morning on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The idle observations from the uniformed lobby doorman and the waitress four blocks away at Gracie’s Corner, where the wait was manageable and the pancakes were reliably fluffy, were about afternoon rain, the prospect of which further softened the jostle of the expired workweek.
I liked it there.
Dana and I had carved something like a routine from our first year east. What began as an exercise in survival became almost comfortable. We’d rented a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa, a coffee table, and a couple chairs, bought a few things for the kitchen, and mostly ate out. We were in our mid-twenties, a good time for exploration and discovery and a semi-furnished life. At first we walked the neighborhood within a few blocks of 90th and York Avenue, browsing the shops and studying the menus taped to the windows before widening the radius to include Central Park and the museums that run practically side-by-side along Fifth Avenue.
We began to smile at familiar and friendly faces: the people with whom we regularly rode the elevator, the guy behind the deli counter a couple doors down, the woman who pushed quarters across the top of a stack of tabloids, change for our newspaper. Amid its swirling rhythms and every-man-for-himself pretenses, New York was becoming a good place for us. We were learning about each other, fending for ourselves, accumulating the scrapes and bruises that come with the outsiders’ clumsy entrance.
I’m not sure the transplants among the city’s millions ever believe that life there can be done quite right. There’s simply too much one can’t know, there being so many wonderful layers of people and cultures, so many siren blips and impulses. And yet, many find their spots. There is a life to be had in the spaces of stillness amid the commotion, and that’s where we generally succeeded in hosting it.
The job wasn’t going as well.
I walked with Dana that morning with The New York Times under my arm and work on my mind. A man pushed buckets of fresh flowers to the sidewalk, far enough to be tempting to passersby, not so far as to be out of sight. The paper carried the story of the Yankees’ loss last night at The Stadium, a Cleveland Indians rookie named Manny Ramirez—raised in New York’s own Washington Heights—hitting his first big-league home run in front of scores of friends and relatives down the left-field line, and, two innings later, his second. The Mets had lost in Chicago. The Angels game had gone too late to make the early edition. There may have been a mention of me somewhere within those pages, which I’d chosen not to read.
It was early September and beginning to feel like it. The weather was turning and the Yankees were in the race, in second place, a couple games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East. Life and baseball were moving fast, each jostling the other to take the lead as Dana and I stuck to our recent game-day habits: me feeling the anxiety and freshness of a new five-day cycle, eager for the ball and another shot, her fretting that I’d lose again and we’d have to relive the previous four days.
As we walked, we spoke of that afternoon’s start against the Indians, what it might bring, then left the conversation as a pile of half-finished thoughts. We ate breakfast, the two of us crammed in the way people so frequently are in that massive city, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, yet feeling mostly alone. Dana, I could tell from her clipped sentences, felt the gravity of the day keenly even as she stirred her coffee. What we didn’t talk about I felt in my stomach: the ballgame—my ballgame—hours away, too near to allow me to ponder anything else, too far off to do anything about. We returned to the apartment and I left Dana there. “Good luck,” she said with a hug. “Thanks,” I said. “We’ll see what happens,” thinking, Sorry to have dragged you into this. I gathered my pre-packed duffel bag, and returned to the streets to summon a metered ride to Yankee Stadium.
Even at mid-morning on a Saturday, the mere four miles from the Upper East Side to the Bronx—York Avenue to FDR Drive to the Major Deegan Expressway and up to 161st Street—seemed long. I wanted to be there, into my routine, burying myself in a pile of scouting reports, awaiting game time, a clock that wouldn’t start until the heavy metal door to the clubhouse swung open. Taped to the other side of that door would be the lineup, me on the bottom, pitching against a team that, five days before, had hit almost everything I’d thrown, and hit it hard.
I stared from the rear passenger window across the East River, made dreary by the skies, and considered exactly where it was I was going.
What would come that afternoon, I did not know. But I sensed that something would, something well within the boundaries of glory and ignominy, those sorts of extremes, but something important to me. I’d come from the Angels nine months before to lead the Yankees’ pitching staff, or so the papers said. I’d cost the Yankees three players everyone thought were pretty good, the thinking being that given a little Yankee-like run support and granted Yankee Stadium’s expansive center and left-center fields, I could be the ace they’d needed since, I don’t know . . . Ron Guidry?
I won the home opener that year, 1993, going nine innings and beating the Kansas City Royals and David Cone, 4–1, in front of almost 57,000 people. It was an incredible experience on a fantastic stage, a great rush. I was sure I’d found a new home, and surmised I was okay with leaving behind the big contract offer from the Angels and life in Orange County, which included Dana’s family.
The Angels had raised me in the ways of professional baseball, straight out of the University of Michigan, straight from the draft, straight from the Olympics, and straight into their starting rotation. Four years later, after I’d had the best ERA of my career (as it turned out) but 15 losses in 1992, they traded me. Maybe these are the rhythms of Major League Baseball, but they weren’t my rhythms, not at all. Suddenly I’d been transplanted from an ocean view in Newport Beach to a city view on the Upper East Side, from the mom-and-pop Angels to the pinstriped, corporate George Steinbrenner Yankees.
There was more, of course. There was always more.
I’d gone without a right hand for nearly twenty-six years. The doctors said it was a birth defect, which, in my case, was what they called something that was less an issue at birth than in life. The birth actually went fine; the complications came long after. The best I can say is I managed them. When I was young my father put a baseball in my hand, and it made sense, and eventually it put me in a place where, maybe, I was a little less different.
Baseball, to me, was validation. And sometimes leaning on baseball like that was a good thing.
The cab bounced north. I held the approximate fare plus a couple dollars in my hand to avoid any holdups at the ballpark. Best to just slam the door and be off, over the slate-gray cobblestones, past the grinning, blue-coated security, down the curling flight of stairs.
Other cars accompanied my cab. They were driven by strangers with their jaws set, starched shirtsleeves buttoned at their wrists, people working on a Saturday morning just as I was. I loved my job mostly, but sometimes got to wondering why it didn’t always love me back. Often on these drives, or on bus rides through unfamiliar cities, I’d look at people in their cars, people in the streets, and mentally frisk them for the symptoms of their lives. What would they give to be in my place, to be a big-league ballplayer, traveling the country, making millions, regular paychecks on the first and fifteenth, win or lose?
Probably the same I’d give.
Five days before I’d felt like I’d lost, and lost badly. The start had come at the old ballpark in Cleveland and I hadn’t gotten out of the fourth inning. I’d hit just about every bat in the Indians’ lineup, a few twice, always on the barrel, and trudged off the mound having allowed ten hits, four walks, and seven runs. While Dion James and Paul O’Neill and Don Mattingly rallied for 14 runs and a win in spite of me, I returned to the clubhouse, tore off my road grays, and put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Without a thought, I went for a get-it-all-out run, straight through the Municipal Stadium parking lot and into the streets of Cleveland, which seemed a good idea at the time and only ended up further annoying our manager, Buck Showalter, a by-the-book baseball man who hadn’t read the chapter on get-it-all-out runs.
Still, rather than stew in the clubhouse, gauging the relative flight-and-crash capabilities of folding chairs, I dashed into the steamy afternoon toward the blinking lights of what looked like an airport, away from the anger and frustration, away from the expectations. All of which, it turned out, tailed me out of the clubhouse.
In the dugout I’d left behind, Showalter turned to an assistant trainer who’d returned from the clubhouse.
“How’s Jim doing?” Showalter asked.
“I don’t know. He’s gone.”
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“Just, ‘gone.’ ”
I hadn’t exactly been Ron Guidry in my first season as a Yankee. To that point, I’d won nine games and lost eleven, and was about to be bailed out of a twelfth that was pretty well deserved. My arm felt fine, though I’d gnawingly lost some velocity on my fastball. My signature pitch—a cut fastball, which ran inside on right-handed hitters and had always left my hand reliably—seemed in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Sometimes it darted in on the right-handers, hard and late. Other times, it dawdled across the plate, practically begging to get hit, and, generally, major-league hitters don’t have to be asked twice. I was inconsistent, pitching well at times and winning, pitching well and losing, pitching poorly and losing, and making all the in-between stops, leaving me right at mediocre. So, I stomped across the pavement, killing the five-plus innings I’d left to the bullpen, sweating out the disappointment, full of anger and having nowhere to put it. It’s funny: As a starting pitcher, you’d spend four and a half days training your body and your mind for those three hours, and when it ended abruptly and ingloriously, the preparation, adrenaline, and made-up images of pushing onward just sort of hung there while the game went on without you. What were you supposed to do with all that stuff? Put it in a sandwich bag and carry it around for another four and a half days? Some of the most grounded pitchers I ever knew had the toughest time assimilating back into the team model for those fifteen or thirty minutes after they were out of that competition mode. I was one of the worst at it. Instead, I’d throw things and yell and hope not to harm anyone.