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Fathers Playing Catch with Sons
1 March 1973
But I don't want to go. Work feels good. I am writing poems again. I don't want to leave Michigan in March, go to Florida, and run around bases all day in a baseball uniform making an ass of myself.
Three months ago, Gerry McCauley asked me to spend a week of spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I accepted, knowing that things like this never happen. Gerry daydreams a lot.
I make reservations, I cancel appointments. I do back exercises.
But, all the same, baseball ...
It began with listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers, about 1939 when I was ten years old. The gentle and vivacious voice of Red Barber floated from the Studebaker radio during our Sunday afternoon drives along the shore of Long Island Sound. My mother and my father and I, wedded together in the close front seat, heard the sounds of baseball — and I was tied to those sounds for the rest of my life.
We drove from Connecticut to Ebbets Field, to the Polo Grounds, to Yankee Stadium. When I was at college I went to Fenway Park and to Braves Field. Then, in 1957, I left the East and moved to Michigan. At first, I was cautious about committing myself to the Tigers. The Brooklyn Dodgers had gone to Los Angeles, of all things, and whom could you trust? Al Kaline? Rocky Colavito? Jim Bunning? Norm Cash? I went to Tiger Stadium three or four times a year, and I watched Big Ten college baseball frequently, especially in 1961 when a sophomore football player named Bill Freehan caught for Michigan and, as I remembered, hit .500. The Tigers signed him that summer.
All summer the radio kept going. I wrote letters while I listened to baseball. I might not have known what the score was, but the sound comforted me, a background of distant voices. If rain interrupted the game, I didn't want to hear music; it was baseball radio voices that I wanted to hear.
Baseball is a game of years and of decades. Al Kaline's children grew up. Rocky Colavito was traded, left baseball, became a mushroom farmer, and came back to baseball as a coach. Jim Bunning turned into a great National League pitcher and retired. Norm Cash had a better year at thirty-five than he had had in nearly a decade. And Kaline kept on hitting line drives.
And Jane and I met, and married, and in 1972 the sound of baseball grew louder; Jane loves baseball too. The soft southern sounds of announcers — always from the South, from Red Barber on — filled up the house like plants in the windows, new chairs, and pictures. At night after supper and on weekend afternoons, we heard the long season unwind itself, inning by inning, as vague and precise as ever: the patter of the announcer and, behind him, always, like an artist's calligraphy populating a background more important than the foreground, the baseball sounds of vendors hawking hot dogs, Coke, and programs; the sudden rush of noise from the crowd when a score was posted; the flat slap of a bat and again the swelling crowd yells; the Dixieland between innings; even the beer jingles.
We listened on the dark screen porch, an island in the leaves and bushes, in the faint distant light from the street, while the baseball cricket droned against the real crickets of the yard. We listened while reading newspapers or washing up after dinner. We listened in bed when the Tigers were on the West Coast, just hearing the first innings, then sleeping into the game to wake with the dead gauze sound of the abandoned air straining and crackling beside the bed. Or we went to bed and turned out the lights late in the game, and started to doze as the final pitches gathered in the dark, and when the game ended with a final out and the organ played again, a hand reached out in the dark, over a sleeping shape, to turn off the sound.
And we drove the forty miles to Tiger Stadium, parked on a dingy street in late twilight, and walked to the old green and gray, iron and concrete fort. Tiger Stadium is one of the few old ballparks left, part of the present structure erected in 1912 and the most recent portion in 1938. It is like an old grocer who wears a straw hat and a blue necktie and is frail but don't you ever mention it. It's the old world, Tiger Stadium, as baseball is. It's Hygrade Ball-Park Franks, the smell of fat and mustard, popcorn and spilled beer.
As we approach at night, the sky lights up like a cool dawn. We enter the awkward, homemade-looking, cubist structure, wind through the heavy weaving of its nest, and swing up a dark corridor to the splendid green summer of the field. Balls arch softly from the fungoes, and the fly-shaggers arch them back toward home plate. Batting practice. Infield practice. Pepper. The pitchers loosening up between the dugout and the bullpen. We always get there early. We settle in, breathe quietly the air of baseball, and let the night begin the old rituals again: managers exchange lineups, Tigers take the field, we stand for "our National Anthem," and the batter approaches the plate....
My son Andrew is eighteen years old. Today he telephones from college, and I tell him what I am about to get into. He snickers. I am always doing things that he half wants to deny and half wants to boast about.
He recalls for me the time at Tiger Stadium when, in front of everybody, I dropped a home run that miraculously hurtled into my hand. We were sitting in right-field upper-deck boxes, and a Kansas City left-hander swung hard, and the ball sailed toward me as fat and spinless as a knuckleball. I felt as if I were setting Explorer down on the moon — four, three, two, one — and then it hit. For some reason, I tried to catch the ball one-handed, and it bounced off my left hand with a fleshy crash, a noise like a belly-flop from the high tower, and careened out, over the rail, to the grandstand below. Some 54,000 fans mixed ironic cheers with ironic boos. "Sign him up," I heard around me, and my palm blushed and puffed up.
"Have a good time," says Andrew on the telephone. "You're crazy."
Then my daughter Philippa, who is thirteen, comes to the house for supper. I tell her where I am going. She asks if I can send her a crate of oranges. She is irritated that I am going away from a Michigan March to the sun of Florida, to swimming. Suddenly at supper she looks panicked. "But Daddy," she says, "suppose you make the team?"
She has played the flute for a year and a half. "I have as much chance of making the team as you have of playing the flute with the Boston Symphony right now."
"Oh," she says. Then she laughs, but I can see that I have hurt her feelings. She has daydreams too.
We fly to Atlanta, then to Athens, Georgia, where I will read my poems at the University of Georgia. I have a friend there, a poet named Coleman Barks. He is a fine poet and a good athlete, as poets go. We meet from time to time on the road to read our poems, and he beats me at ping pong. He plays tennis in tournaments.
Now Coleman asks me questions. "What will you do if they ask you to arm-wrestle?"
"It all began in the eighth grade," I tell him. "When I tried out for the baseball team, they didn't cut me, they just laughed at me." (I remember the faces: "Go home, Hall.")
"That's why I started to write poems," I say. "The humiliation. I could not be good at anything in sports, so I looked around to see what else I could do, to get attention. Especially from girls. Especially, a year later, when I was at Hamden High, from cheerleaders."
"That's not why I started to write poems," says Coleman. "Who do you think you are, George Plimpton?"
I have known George Plimpton for a long time. I edited poetry for his magazine, the Paris Review. I decide to call him from Coleman's and ask for advice.
Freddy, who is George's wife, answers the phone. George is out of town. In point of fact, George is in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he is making a movie about shock absorbers. He is making a movie about shock absorbers to be shown to shock absorber salesmen.
The poetry reading seems to go well, though my mind is on other matters.
Morning. Today we will fly from Georgia to Florida.
Coleman's son Benjamin is nine and reads biographies of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. At breakfast I tell him eagerly about my forthcoming tryout. Benjamin looks uncomfortable.
Daydreaming on the airplane, I realize that I am lacking in quiet dignity. Lou Gehrig had it. Gary Cooper had it. William Bendix had it. I must get it. Another time, it might be useful to work up some quiet flamboyance, or even a touch of noisy dignity — but not when you're just starting.
We arrive at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport. I confide in the cab-driver. He tells me that his buddy drove Dick Allen from the same airport to the White Sox training complex. Reading a newspaper later, his buddy learned that Dick Allen signed a three-year contract for an estimated salary of $750,000. Allen gave my driver's buddy a fifty-cent tip.
At the motel on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, halfway between Sarasota and Bradenton, I give the driver two dollars.
Now I am lying in the sun beside the Gulf, tired but unhappy. I have just hit a tennis ball with Jane for fifteen minutes. I am exhausted. Tomorrow I will put on a uniform at Pirate City in Bradenton. I am terrified. The jokes go away and the eighth-grade faces come leering back. My palms sweat.
Other people start arriving. Gerry is full of plans, does not seem nervous, and I feel worse. I try to frighten him; I frighten myself. I go into a corner and mope. John Parrish the doctor will arrive tomorrow, and Jim Wooten, who writes a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I don't belong here. I hate everybody. I don't want to have a drink. Everybody else drinks. They are all regular. I am weird. I call George Plimpton.
George answers the phone. I tell him, rapidly and apparently in accents of panic, what I am up to. George seems concerned for my spirits. "Why are you whispering?" he says. "You seem to be telling a secret."
But he agrees to give me advice. He suggests that Ilisten — a lot.
"You mean that I shouldn't talk?" I say.
"Yeah," says George. There is a pause.
"Do they know who you are, Donald?" he says.
I say I don't think so.
He says the best thing is to cultivate somebody in particular on the team, take him into my confidence, and rely on him for advice, comfort, and support.
"I wonder if I know anyone on the Pirates," he says. "Do I know anybody?" I let him think about it.
"No," he says.
There is another long pause. He can't think of anything more to tell me. Or perhaps it is difficult for him to phrase his final piece of advice. "Oh," he says, "... above all, Donald ... don't be solemn."
"Oh," I say, "yeah. I guess I sound sort of solemn, do I?" "You sound," says George, "as if you were entering the Valley of the Shadow of Death."
Practice on Sunday begins at noon, leaving time for church.
We arrive at Pirate City a little late. In the parking lot, we walk past a dense cluster of Mustangs and sportier objects. Then we see Supercar, a huge Cadillac with a Lincoln grille, cream and red, only the red is a rich and pebbly leather. Leather on the outside? No, it has to be vinyl. This is a car that doesn't take any shit. On the license plate we read the owner's name: DOCK.
We find the public relations man, Bill Guilfoile, who will look after us. He takes us to the clubhouse. Nervously, he separates Jane from the rest of us, asking a little old man to take her to the stands. Women are not allowed even near the clubhouse.
It's a damp morning, even at noon. The sun starts to burn through. I feel helpless and foolish as I see the little groups of players, young and lean, walking lazily, gathering together in the outfield. I wish I were somewhere else. Or possibly someone else. The valley of the shadow of death locates itself in my stomach.
Bill Guilfoile introduces us to the trainer, Tony Bartirome, to the man who runs the clubhouse, and to the equipment manager, who seems incredulous of measurements. I think a forty-two might be best. He shakes his head. A forty? The head keeps shaking; I start to shake. A thirty-eight? He can find a thirty-eight.
Yet once again, I lament obesity. I weigh 226 pounds. Within the past year, I have weighed 238 pounds and 204 pounds. Why can't I keep away from Taco Bell, Arby's, McDonald's, Burger King, Scottie's, Jack in the Box, Red Barn, and H. Salt? Why can't I stay at a nice, comfortable 187? I feel so melancholy about my bad eating habits that I am suddenly overwhelmed with hunger. I look around in panic. There is not a soggy bag of french fries in sight.
My reverie is interrupted by a suggestion from the equipment manager. It will take him a moment to find a uniform; why don't I go out among the players and look around? So I do. Gerry stays behind in the clubhouse, finding reason to talk longer with club officials.
Out the clubhouse door, I see the players gathered in center field. I walk toward them over the damp healthy outfield grass, aware of my tourist costume: striped Bermudas from J. C. Penney, leather sandals with a peace sign over the instep, and a short-sleeved shirt. Everyone else out here is wearing a baseball uniform.
I stay on the outskirts of the group in center field. There are maybe fifty players in the group, which shapes itself like an amphitheater, with Bill Virdon the manager talking softly to them, outlining the day's activities. A few players look at me, mildly curious — normally, the fences keep out people who look like me — and then look away.
Just as Virdon comes to a close, a large black player with 17 on his back walks over to me, slaps me gently on the stomach, and says with a mock concern, "Say, you better do some laps!" Suddenly everybody is running. Number 17 beckons me to follow. I start off. I run. I start in the middle of the pack but soon drag to the rear. As we pull around third base, I see my first fans. They look puzzled to see a civilian doing laps with the players. Jane is grinning and hiding at the same time.
As for me, I am elated. By the time I have done a hundred yards, my body hurts but my spirit flies. I know that when Number 17 challenged me he was teasing; taking him literally was teasing him back. By the time I struggle back to center field at the end of the second lap, I am exhausted, but I feel like a free man. Or I feel that illusion of freedom which a drunk man must feel when he runs onto Yankee Stadium eluding police and tries to shake the center-fielder's hand while forty thousand fans boo and clap.
More of the players turn and look now. Number 17 sees me struggle in (he's half an hour ahead of me) and looks surprised. "You really did it," he says. Calisthenics begin. I stand in the back row, near a player with a vacant expression and lots of hair (later, I find out he is Bob Robertson), and I bounce up and down swinging my arms, bend, stretch, lie down, and do it all again. During a pause in the calisthenics, an older man in front of me (a coach named Mel Wright) turns around and says, "Some fine running out there."
"They didn't lap me!" I say.
"It's been a long time since anybody's been lapped out here," he says. "Thought it was going to happen for a while there."
Calisthenics again. Bob Robertson is working hard. Suddenly I see two civilians with cameras dangling all over them. They gesture at me to move closer to Robertson. I oblige and continue my exercises. They bend into their reflex cameras and snap away. I am a novelty photograph.
The loosening up over, I feel as loose as an unraveled sweater. I struggle back to the clubhouse and put on number 43, the road uniform of a coach (coaches have bigger stomachs) named Don Leppert. I meet Bill Mazeroski, gray and leathery as an old greyhound, tough and funny. I meet Steve Blass, who points midsection at Gerry and me, and shrieks: "Look at those boilers!" Learning quickly that we are a bunch of writers, Steve Blass asks plaintively, "Maybe you guys can tell me, what should I do when I grow up?" Blass is thirty-one, the Pirates' best right-handed pitcher for several years past.
In uniform, I discover that my sense of calm and control increases. I feel as if I could walk into bullets. I am aware that my happiness now is as absurd as my earlier terror.
Outside, the players have split into many groups, practicing different parts of the game. Some players throw lazily together, loosening their arms. Everyone must do this every day; if you don't loosen gradually, you will pull a muscle. Others, already warmed up, start to hit against the mechanical pitcher in a little Quonset hangar next to the clubhouse. Distantly, figures run on the four diamonds of the practice field, raising dust. Since it is closest, I go to the batting cage.
Excerpted from "Fathers Playing Catch with Sons"
Copyright © 1984 Donald Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,
Baseball and the Meaning of Life,
O Fenway Park,
The Poet's Game,
The Necessary Shape of the Old-Timers' Game,
The Country of Baseball,
Proseball: Sports, Stories, and Style,
The Baseball Players,
Ace Teenage Sportscribe,
Ping Pong: Root-Cellar Fiveball,
Basketball: The Purest Sport of Bodies,
Basketball: Kevin McHale, For Example,
Football: The Goalposts of Life,
About the Author,