Archive for January, 2013

I “awoke” to baseball in 1967. I say “awoke” because I can’t find another way to explain the sense that nothing existed in my life before 1967 (when I was 7) and that, at least for a time thereafter, baseball would so define the “necessary” of every waking hour. Growing up in a small town in south-central Pennsylvania (population c1000), baseball was, literally, the only game in town and if you lived in that town you were a Phillies fan. Except I wasn’t.

Sometime in 1967 my dad bought me my first glove—a lefty—after seeing me toss a small rubber ball against the steps going upstairs from near the front door of our house (he almost got me a righty but noticed I only used my left hand). And from the start I was a St Louis Cardinals fan. Why? Ronnie Sanger.  Ronnie was hands down the best baseball player in town. Two years older than me, Ronnie came from a “baseball family”. His brothers had had or would soon have tryouts with professional baseball clubs and they each made it to the lower levels of the minor leagues. In Bowmansville, my home town, that was a level of success that was unheard of. I idolized Ronnie Sanger. And sometime before Ronnie came into my conscious mind he had met former St Louis great Stan “the Man” Musial (Stan died on 19 January, 2013) at spring training in Florida. He got Stan’s autograph, fell in love with the Cardinals and, well, so did I.

But even though I awoke in 1967—and the Cardinals won the series over the Red Sox that year—it was not until 1968 that I really took notice of the team, its players and, especially a pitcher named Bob Gibson. I was a pitcher too and Bob Gibson was the most amazing pitcher of that era. In 1968 he won 22 games—not bad but, incredibly, he gave up a paltry 1.12 runs for every nine innings pitched (and in those days he pitched the whole game—he started 34 that year and finished 28—a feat unheard of today). He struck out 17 Detroit Tigers in game one of the World Series that year—a record that still stands.

Bob-GibsonI was crazy about Bob Gibson. He had a way of holding the ball behind his back before going into a full hands-over-head windup and flinging the ball towards home plate. I mimicked that motion every summer day as I threw a rubber ball relentlessly against the barn door in my backyard (though Bob was a righty and I was a lefty, as I said). It was always the World Series that summer (and several after that), and I (Bob) pitched a no-hitter every time out. I am sure there were a few times when I (Bob) struck out every single batter in the 7th game of the World Series.

Martin died that spring and I know I had a glove on my hand the day I heard about it. I was in the kitchen and that is all I remember. King (as he was known in our house) was a communist and his death left no imprint except that there was a sense of relief that his rabble rousing was finally over.

Also that spring, though I can’t remember exactly if it was before or after Martin Luther King’s assassination, I got a book about my hero Bob Gibson. Did I mention that Bob Gibson is black? Did I mention that I did not know any black people? Did I mention that I loved Bob Gibson?

Anyway, I got the book through one of those “Scholastic” book fliers that came home from school about once per month. My parents never said no to letting me get at least one book, and to my amazement sometime that spring included in the list was a biography of Bob Gibson! I think I read that book about five times the first week I had it and the black and white pictures of Bob Gibson in a little league team photo, then in the minors and then pitching for the Cardinals absorbed my gaze for hours on end.

But Bob Gibson’s biography was not just about his pitching exploits (which I had expected). It was about his life growing up in Omaha, his sickly childhood (asthma), and the shocking story of how the great Bob Gibson could not sleep in the same hotel room as his fellow teammates when he was coming up through the minors in the Cardinals’ organization. In fact, Bob Gibson told a lot of stories of how he was treated as a black man and how it was unfair (even and 8-year old could understand that). I remember being stunned and saddened but mostly confused. How could Bob Gibson be denied the same treatment as anyone else simply because he was black? It just made no sense.

And so, sometime in that spring and summer of 1968 I also “awoke” to something else: something about injustice (though that word was not yet available to my tongue), something about privilege (though I could not have imagined that such a thing really existed), something about race…

And in that small town—thanks in part to the confluence of baseball, Ronnie Sanger, the Cardinals and a great pitcher named Bob Gibson a different way of viewing the world took root.

Martin, I was born too late to know you for what you were when I was 8 years old. I was born in the wrong place to be able to hear and see what you were about. I was born in the wrong family to understand the power of your message. But I was born in Bowmansville and thanks to baseball and Bob Gibson I was given a window—a glimpse—into the challenges of racism and the hope that change might come. And I learned that the agents of change in our land might even appear wearing a baseball uniform.

So here’s what I’m thinking…

I talked to a psychiatrist who deals with prison suicides and he said that most of those who kill themselves “inside” have long sentences, get “Dear John” letters, or otherwise see no way out and so they… find a way out. And he said that those on the edge are… well…out there on the edge and it is not really clear what we can do for/with them. When I say “out on the edge”, that is exactly what I mean. We were talking about those who live on the edge of town in ditches and draws and fields away from regular human contact (like the guy who died under a freeway underpass this week in a nearby town—they can’t find his next of kin, that is the edge for sure). Edges, borderlands and frontiers are where things bend and creak and where the rules don’t apply and the whole apparatus may come tumbling down. And we have folks living out there. Various pathologies lead them down the path to the edge and then meth and drink and combinations of bad things seal the deal and there they are. We don’t want them in our parks (in the center of things) and so we help the whole process along by pushing them out (Well it’s not “we” exactly is it? We get the cops to do the dirty work while we sip warm drinks at home with soft music playing in the background). Anyway, my point is, they are out there and meth or malt liquor or other things most of us don’t have direct experience with clinch it for them and… there is no salvation for this kind. There is no redemption (even though we tell ourselves that we believe in all that shit and that we are basically forgiving people) because this kind, well, they have disappointed us SO. MANY. TIMES. And not just disappointed us. Oh no. After we dropped a buck on them or fixed their bike tire or listened to their ramblings and we felt pretty good about ourselves, they came back the next day and asked for more cash or something and when we said “No” they said “Fuck you” and that was that. We were not disappointed. We were dumbfounded and angry and felt justified in walking away and saying “good luck” and thinking “Jesus, what do these guys want from us?” And so to the edge we gratefully send them and rarely do we wonder what they are really up to out there. I mean, who can blame us? This is not about guilt. If they don’t want “help” then who are we to insist? And the psychiatrist says that these cases are not easy. Actually, that is not what he said. What he said was “What can be done for these folks? Realistically” Stack so many deficits on top of deficits and the calculation becomes pretty clear—the balance is negative all the way down. After all, personality disorders dominate and there is no “drug” for that. There is only the hard work of being abused even as you try the “directly observed therapy” of dispensing advice to “keep going to counseling” (except that there really isn’t any counseling, is there?), but they can’t commit to that because they have this thing called a personality disorder. And vicious circle does not begin to describe the kind of spirals that people find themselves in and they move further out to the border lands until we don’t see them anymore and we hear (but never confirm) that they believe that thorns are embedded in their flesh, or that they are invincible (just before they step in front of the train), or that there are lizard beings on the edge of the atmosphere waiting to take over the world (don’t laugh, please, try not to laugh). I mean… who is going to go in among the tombstones and find the “demoniac”—naked and prone to tear at his own flesh—and lay a hand on that body (imagine the pathogens on that skin) and make him human again. Who is going to do that? Who is going to flee into the arms of that embrace?

And so… what are we going to say? There is nothing we can do? Do we release them to the universe and return to our homes and await the inevitable notice in the paper of their demise? The psychiatrist says “take small actions” but we are all about big solutions and ten year plans and bold proclamations about ending it all. But it doesn’t work that way dammit. You don’t bring an aimless horde back from the precincts at the frontier by just saying so and making a plan. You have to go out there and walk and experience the tombs. Rub your hands up against the granite and allow your fingers to trace the names carved into its surface. You have to touch the chains. You have to feel the hot breath of an argument too close for comfort. You have to see the rotten teeth and the shattered skin. You have to listen to the lies and the dissimulation. Can I be honest? Brutally honest? I don’t want to go out there. Don’t make me go out there.

So that’s what I’m thinking.