Tales of a Heroic Nothing

I could have been a hero once.

Not in that Superman kind of way to which every kid aspires. You’d probably know about that. I’d have been all over the news. Likely because I would have exacted my revenge upon everyone who ever wronged me. Nothing too horrific, but with x-ray vision (which no kid should ever have), super strength, body like steel, and the ability to fly my ass away from any crime scene, I wouldn’t have exactly been kind about it. I guess, when you think about it, that would make me less of a hero than a villain. Less Luke than Anakin. More Jerry than Tom.

Boy that would have been cool.

But this isn’t a story about me being cool, largely because one doesn’t exist. No, this is a story about baseball, and perhaps other wandering ramblings in my effort to actually reach the point. If you don’t like baseball, then maybe just skim through, and settle on a few key words in order to get the gist. Let me help: turtle, cattle crossing, cactus cat, and this is totally unfair and stupid. I’m not sure yet if any of those will make it into this post, but if they don’t and you were skimming because you don’t like baseball, then that’s what you get for listening to me. Also, YOU’RE WELCOME. Because this story just got a whole lot shorter.

I grew up (for the most part, though a number of people will debate when, or if, I ever actually did that) in a small Northern Florida town called Palatka. Oh dear Lord, there’s a wiki page for Palatka! You have no idea how much that entertains me. Or perhaps you will, at some point. A wiki page! I’m not even sure the majority of the populace there even knows what the Internet is, short of some Big City way of greeting your neighbor like any decent folk would: with a shotgun and a beef about their pregnant daughter. Anyway, Palatka is a Timucuan Indian word for “cattle crossing”. Make of that what you will. If you’ve ever been near a cattle crossing, or heaven forbid through one, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this town is like. I feel as though I’m allowed to sound negative about the town I still consider home, whereas I should probably kick the ass of anyone else who dares make fun of it. Largely because this is my blog, and yeah, but also because I still, oddly enough, have a fondness for it. A lot of “firsts” there. Including my first attempt to flee my dumb stupid hometown.

So. Baseball.

See, that paragraph was easy to skim, wasn’t it? Two words. Boom. Done. And half of it had to do with baseball. It’s like you didn’t even know you were reading about baseball and the next thing, you’re all, “I totally identify with baseball now.” It’s the magic of writing, folks. Be jealous.

The first story I recall writing, and the one that made me want to do it forever and forever amen, was a little piece about baseball. I was twelve, so I bypassed the obvious need for an intellectually inert romantic spin that would have livened the story up to a more readable state, and focused on what mattered most: Being a hero. The plot was a simple one. I didn’t want to confuse the issue, detract from the overwhelming power of being a hero in the most important sport in all of history. Short of bobsledding, of course. That’s a cool sport. But it’s really just Hollywood’s love child, isn’t it? Unless you’re Jamaican, nobody cares. And really, we only cared because we wanted to hear them talk about it, right? I mean, so you’re inept. So your country doesn’t actually have a winter. So you might have spokespeople that shout “Hooray beer!” at you in a way that makes you feel the need to drink.

Cactus cat.

Still skimming? Well, you just totally missed a whole paragraph about Jamaican bobsledding. Skimmers. This is why book clubs are so fascinating, and why dropping in on one in order to talk about something that didn’t actually happen in the book is so much fun. You know these people haven’t all read it. Either they skimmed while being talked at by family that just won’t go the hell away for an hour, or they didn’t really read all of it, so if you drop in something–I don’t know, about a Jamaican bobsledding team for instance–they’ll panic. If they deny it, they risk the chance exposing they missed something while knocking a spouse upside the head. If they go along with it, you know they didn’t read it.

Actually though, the cactus cat story is pretty good, but I guess I’ll deal with that another time since I’m otherwise engaged in more important storytelling. So, in this story, a twelve-year-old boy, who looked NOTHING like me at all, is walking to the championship game. He steps in a hole, twists his ankle, rolls on the street a bit and feels the eternal letdown of potentially letting his team down. Not willing to give in, he hobbles to the game, where he’s forced to sit on the bench until there are two outs in the last inning, his team down a run, and the bases are loaded. Coach calls him up to pinch hit, because hero plot, and the kid delivers a game-winning hit, barely making it to first before his ankle completely gives out. Hero stuff! YAY!

I always loved that story. I always wanted to be that hero. I think part of me was certain it was prophecy, destined to be a part of ME and my heroic journey through life. Still, I walked very carefully to all my games. Who wants all that pain, right? Just give me the hero stuff. And a soda, if you don’t mind.

DISCLAIMER: I love baseball. Anyone who has had any contact with me whatsoever knows this. You may not. So, whatever your definition of love, whatever you deem to be the most passionate a human being can be about any one person or thing, you’re wrong. Just stop. It’s way worse than that. I don’t want to simply watch baseball. I don’t want to live it. I don’t want to own a team. I want to own baseball. All of it. Mine.  To love and to squeeze and to call George. Got it? There, now that’s out of the way.

I was on a few teams that were good. Two that even made it into the championship. I like to think I did a bunch of little hero stuff along the way to help out. But nothing big. Not that I didn’t try, I just didn’t get the opportunity. The first team got trounced in the championship. The second team, the second championship I was in, however, I flat-out got jipped. Worst part of it is, I didn’t even know. It was ten years later before I found out I had my potential hero moment ripped from my unknowing hands.

I played alongside a cousin of mine. He was six months older, always bigger, and always better. We played a lot together. Whiffle ball, a little with tennis balls, always he and I in a driveway annoying my mom by pitching against the garage door. On that first team, we were teammates. A few years later, we played on different teams. Teams that were both good. Teams that beat the snot out of other teams (there’s a lot of snot involved in Little League Baseball, in case you were wondering). Teams that faced off in the championship, my cousin pitching against us. We were evenly matched, my cousin and I. See, though he was better than me, we had played together for so many years that he couldn’t pitch anything I hadn’t already seen and hit. So, when the final inning came around, my team down by one, two outs and runners on first and second, I came up to bat feeling nervous but confident.

What I remember is this: I walked and the next guy to bat got out. Anti-climactic, I know. I could spin some wonderful tale about how he got me down to two strikes and I battled–as any good hero will–and earned that walk. Gave our team the chance to win. Not heroic stuff, but a courageous warrior type refusal to lose stuff. What I found out ten years later–ten years of seeing myself as the ultimate fighter who won out but didn’t have the support to be the victor–came from my cousin in a rush of undeniably heinous amusement. “Man, I remember that game,” he said, smiling slightly. “No way I was going to let you beat me. I just threw four pitches as far away from you as possible, and worried about getting Joe out. I knew he couldn’t hit me.”

Jaw. Floor. My chance at being a hero taken, not by circumstance, but by a cousin who was willing to be beaten by anybody but me. Images of what my life could have been flashed before my eyes. Al Bundy and his four touchdowns. Parades in my honor. A sense of confidence and purpose from that one moment driving me to a lifetime of success in the sport I loved. I stood there and gawked at him. Then, not wanting to seem surprised–ergo defeated–I smiled, said, “Yeah … crazy stupid Joe,” and walked out of the room, because that’s the way I roll. Non-confrontational to the bitter end. Then I went outside and beat the shit out of a tree with a whiffle bat. I’m sure the tree had it coming, hovering over me as it did like a cousin too afraid to let the sun shine on me for a moment.

And still, to this day, I think this is so unfair and stupid. Ok, I really don’t, but it was the last key word(s) to fit in, so, there. I did it. No, wait, there’s the turtle bit. So, advice you didn’t ask for with an image you didn’t want: When cutting the grass for a friend, DO NOT mow under any bushes that might line the side of the house, no matter how far under the grass may go. You may find it to be the unfortunate hiding place of a frightened turtle, and an unpleasant mess for you to clean.

Point here is I could have been a hero. I would have been. And all the x-ray power or superhuman strength wouldn’t have beaten it.

So intimidating.

So intimidating. You know it. I know it. It’s the glasses, isn’t it?

Talking Baseball

I just applied to become a full-time baseball nut.  MLB.com is going to send someone to NYC for a full baseball season, where they will watch baseball all year (every game to some degree, every day), blog about it, vlog about it, tweet about it, yell about it, talk about it, be interviewed about it, and…well, you get the drift.  I’m stoked.  A full, non-stop, ridiculously busy year of baseball.  To which of the baseball Gods do I need to beg and plead?  Anyway, there was a two-part essay, and I thought I would share it here.

The first half, in 500 words or less, was a bit about myself and why I dearly love baseball so.  This is what I wrote:

The day that I die, I will bequeath to this world a heart with one seam and two hundred and sixteen stitches.  As it is, I’m quite certain that when I was born—I arrived one week early in late June of ‘72—I did so in a desperate need to avoid closing out the first half of the season in utero.  No self-respecting baseball fan wants to be born during the All-Star break.  I grew up on a diet of Reggie, complemented that as I aged with sides of Garvey and Cey, spent the glorious span of summer reliving the celebrated games of years past with a whiffle bat and tennis ball, and ultimately found there was no greater joy, no greater love than settling into an uncomfortable seat with a hot dog in one hand and a program in the other.  I came alive as spring rolled in, overcoming what most people now refer to Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I always just called the Offseason Blues.  I lived in Florida.  It wasn’t cold.  There just wasn’t any baseball, and the internet wasn’t even through Rookie League yet.

I wrote my first short story when I was twelve.  It was a heroic tale about a young boy who twisted his ankle while walking to the championship game.  It was a horrendous injury, one that left him certain there was no way he would make it to the game, much less play when he arrived.  It was heart-wrenching.  I poured my soul into that story, and cheered the boy on when he mustered the courage to fight through the pain, make his way to the field, and bring home the deciding run when all seemed lost.  I was convinced this was the greatest tale ever told, and no moment in life would ever best it.  Four years later, Kirk Gibson hit his limp-legged shot into the seats in the ’88 World Series off Dennis Eckersley, and I wasn’t entirely sold that he hadn’t intentionally stole my thunder.  Of course, it was historic, and I became less interested in vengeance with every fist-pump, every painful step he made around the bases.  I let it slide, and decided I should at least make do with the chops I’d been given.  I might not have to limp (though I could if I needed to impress the girls), but I could string the words together to someday write the best baseball story ever written.

There are no words to adequately express my love for the game.  Now two books into a career as an impoverished author, I’ve decided the only reason I want to make Trump-town cash as a writer is in order to own a franchise.  I never evolved as a player—though I’ve had quite the career in my mind—but I live and breathe this sport.  I have to be involved in it every day, every year, and relish every moment of every game I see.  I’m Gonzo.  Baseball is my chicken.

Right.  Part two asked what I believed this year’s big story would be.  And so sayeth I:

Albert Pujols and his forthcoming pile of Genie’s gold is going to be in everyone’s ear this year, whether he wants it that way or not.  The Yankees are going to sob loudly in their room after being jilted at the Prom by the two-headed stud-monster of Cliff Lee and Andy PettitteAdam Wainwright is the latest in what now totals over 150 Major League pitchers who have had, or are scheduled to have, Tommy John surgery.  Young phenom Bryce Harper is on the trail to projected glory, soon to join a promising future in the nation’s capitol.

All of which will create a generous buzz between now and October.   And yet, we’re going to spend this year talking about four pitchers and what they mean to the history books, what they mean to the game, and what they mean to a franchise racing against time for one more run to glory.  In Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, the Philadelphia Phillies have a quartet striving to equal, or perhaps best, the pitching staffs of the ’93 and ’95 Braves, and the ’71 Orioles.

In Halladay, Oswalt, and Lee alone, the Phillies have 3 of the top 5 pitchers in highest career winning percentage, with a minimum of 100 starts, in baseball history.  They have two (Halladay 2.67, Lee 2.98) of the four pitchers over the last 3 seasons with sub 3.00 ERA’s and 600+ innings.  And Cliff Lee, well, all he’s done over the past three years is rank 6th in wins (48), 7th in ERA (2.98), and 5th in IP (667.1).  Toss in his stellar record in the postseason (7-2, 2.13), and his run in the second half of 2009 with Philly (7-4, 3.39, 4-0 in the playoffs), and you have reason to believe the Phillies have the making of something historically special.  If that doesn’t sparkle your fireworks, and if the idea of pitching in a notably hitter-friendly park makes you squeamish, it’s important to note that of the top 6 ERA’s in Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies now own 3 of them (Oswalt 2.10, Halladay 2.21, Lee 2.52).

The Phillies head into 2011 with the reigning NL Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay (ahem, no-hitter in the playoffs, ahem), a pitcher in Lee who only walked 18 men last year while striking out 185, Roy Oswalt, who only went 7-1 with a microscopic 1.74 ERA after being traded mid-season, and Cole Hamels, who may be a bit sporadic and reminds one a touch of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, but had an ERA last season of 3.06 with 211 strikeouts in 208.2 innings.

There may be questions about the Phillies age, whether or not their bullpen can save a frog from jumping, and whether or not they can stay healthy enough, and score enough runs, to win a championship, but one thing is rock solid certain.  Everyone is going to be talking about how this rotation stacks up against history.