A couple of months ago I did an exercise based on character development. It was based on a comment from Kristen Wiig during a Marc Maron podcast. She talked about embodying a character by starting with their physique and any idiosyncrasies they might have. It was a great point and a great exercise.
I have been in a fallow spell recently. I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of writing each day, and have been getting in less time and distracting myself more even when I am at my desk. I have been a bit frustrated with the stories I have been producing lately. They seem flat, meandering. So a writing exercise seemed like a good idea.
I worked on this one over two days, perhaps putting in 75 minutes in total. The challenge–put four people, in different times, in the same place. I chose Fenway Park.
It was a first, one that he had picked and not her, but Jimmy—who set them up—said she loved the Red Sox. He had been to a game with a few people and she had been there, drinking beer and screaming her lungs out. Jimmy said the screaming was always a good sign. It meant she would be good in bed.
He bought the first round and they clicked their plastic cups together. “To baseball,” she offered, and he nodded. She had deep brown eyes and he just then noticed the deep purple streak in her brown hair. It was a good look.
Fenway seats were built for 1912 people, short and much thinner. He was 6’2 and 240 pounds. It was hard to make his leg not touch hers, but after the third beer she didn’t seem to mind and after the fifth beer she kissed him while the crowd sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He smiled into her kiss.
Brian couldn’t help tabulate all the money. He was an account after all. $85 each for four tickets, $40 for parking, $64 for the hot dogs and cokes, $14 for the two ice creams for the girls. Four-hundred-fifty-eight fucking dollars and the girls hadn’t watched the game for a minute. Katrina kept asking him when they would leave and saying Mr. Whiskers was missing them. At some point, Big Papi hit a home run. Brian only noticed because it didn’t land that far from them and everyone went scrambling for the ball.
Back in the day, when he and Nancy were first married, they would come to a few games each year. He could get tickets for $18. He would watch every play, keep score, banter with other guys sitting nearby. Nancy was still in graduate school and some nights she would read for most of the game. He didn’t mind; he even liked it. He wanted to be absorbed in the rhythm of the game.
One game, back when Boggs was still playing, Brian had been charting the whole at bat. Boggs got to 3-2, and then started spraying foul balls. One, then three, then six. Brian had played through high school and he marveled at Boggs’ bat control. Brian couldn’t have done that even once—stare down a 93-mile-an-hour fastball, flick his bat, and send the ball slicing into the stands. Some people say they would give anything to hit a homer over the green monster; Brian would give anything to foul balls away at will like that.
On the twelfth pitch of the bat, Boggs slapped at a ball and it came screaming at Brian. He stood up at just the right time, dropped his scorebook, and snared the ball with both hands, just as he had been taught. It hit the pad of his left hand and Brian knew it would bruise, but he didn’t care. He stood for a moment. He knew he might end up on television. Jerry Remy, the color commentator, liked to highlight when a fan made a good catch. Sometimes they even replayed them. He could ask some friends later if they had seen him.
He sat down. Nancy smiled and kissed him, and the guys around him slapped his back, told him it was a great catch. He was glad it was a night game and there were no kids around. There would have been some peer pressure. “Give it to the kid!” “Don’t be an asshole!” But there were no kids, so he turned the ball over and over in his hand. He picked up his beer in his left hand, welcomed the cold against his stinging palm. It would be a good bruise.
There were worse ways to spend your retirement. Too many of his friends sold their houses, moved to Florida, and had been golfing ever since. They all told Jerry he would hate each winter more and more. One buddy, Tim, even sent him the real estate section from the Miami Herald. He had scrolled across the first page in red marker, “Come on down! The water’s fine!”
Jerry wrapped up his law practice one spring just in time to take a job at Fenway as an usher. He had always loved Fenway; why not go to every game for free? He knew it wouldn’t be like that—he would be busy helping and talking to fans. It took him a while to get used to being on his feet so much, but then he found the right shoes.
The drunks bothered him, though, especially the young ones. Big, burly guys would do beer run after beer run, bringing two at a time back to their seats and quaffing both in half an inning, returning for more. He watched a guy drink 14 beers one day, and he probably missed a couple when he went under the stands for a few minutes to help a big crowd collect a few straggling kids.
On a Friday night a young woman—a girl really—appeared next to him during the third inning. She reeked of booze and her hat was askew. At first Jerry couldn’t understand what she was saying but she kept repeating it. “My friends,” she pointed up to the stands where a few girls were waving. “My friends dared me to give you a blow job under the stands somewhere.” Jerry couldn’t help but look her over. She was blond, tall, and thick with pendulous breasts. He blushed, turned around, and walked away. He heard the cackles from the stands, “Ow! Shut down! Don’t let him say no, Hailey!”
Jerry walked to the end of the section, turned to the field, grabbed the banister, and held on.
She couldn’t tell if her father was enjoying the game. “You OK, Dad?”
He turned to her, smiled. “Never been better.” He picked up his coke. Sipped it. She watched his throat work at swallowing, saw him wince.
Who knew all the things that would come at him after his diagnosis and then the chemo? The hair loss of course, the vomiting. But then he started to bloat and his skin had bruised to the point that they had to transfuse him. He was dizzy for most of the day, exhausted. Of all the things, she wasn’t ready for his irritability, but he clamped down on that after a couple of weeks. He was too nice to let others around him suffer.
He had always loved baseball, though, always loved the Red Sox. One of her first memories was of sitting on his lap in these very seats. They had been in the family since before she was born, but he had been coming less since the divorce a few years ago, letting friends buy them and enjoy the view. This was the first game he had been to since he got sick.
“Watch the game, sweetie,” he was turned to her again, smiling that warm smile despite his sagging cheeks and the yellow in his eyes. “They’re a great team this year, they really are.” He swallowed. “Just think, most of them are as young as you, out there playing that game.”
He turned back to the field and she saw a tear well. He sipped his coke again and pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes, putting his face in shadow. It was a sunny day and he had always been careful that way.
I get lost in baseball box scores, stats, and career synopses. While I used to rely on sources like the Information Please Sports Almanac (which I worked on for a couple of years), now everything is on the Internet. The definitive source is Baseball-Reference.com, where I can spend a few minutes doing things like reviewing the perfectly mediocre 1985 Red Sox, who finished the season at 81-81 (thanks in part to a five-game losing streak to end the season).
On the last game of that season, October 6, the Milwaukee Brewers and Danny Darwin beat the Sox and Bruce Hurst, 9-6 (a score only a football fan could love). Wade Boggs reached 240 hits after going 3 for 4, and finished the season with a .368 average to win the batting title. The season ended with a whimper though when Mike Easler grounded out to second to end it.
I studied the full box score and then played one of my Baseball Reference games, where I marched through the Red Sox roster year by year. I am especially interested in the lesser players. I challenge myself to remember each player each year. I can identify every player on the 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988 rosters. I stumble, though, over Jeff Stone in 1989, but I forgive myself. He had 3 hits in 15 at bats. Should anyone remember a player who hit the Mendoza Line unless his name happens to be, you know, Mario Mendoza?
Besides, I got married that year. I was distracted.
I nailed it again in 1990, despite the Red Sox having 43 players pass through their roster, including lesser names but New England natives Billy Jo Robidoux and Rick Lancellotti. I vaguely remembered Lancellotti having a long minor league career, and then Baseball Reference tells me that he had the quirky career arc of appearing in major league games in the years 1982, 1986, and 1990, and only the years 1982, 1986, and 1990. He finished his career 11 for 65, good for a career .169 batting average, with two home runs and eleven RBI. He went 0 for 8 for the Red Sox in that last year, striking out once. His last at-bat came against the Angels on August 18th of that year. In the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Sox down, 4-2, Lancellotti hit a sacrifice fly to deep right field, scoring Tom Brunansky. Lancellotti trotted off the field, never to appear on a major league field again.
That didn’t stop him from chasing that dream. By that point Lancellotti was 34 and had already played eleven seasons in the minors and two in Japan. He played one more season in the minors (for the Sox’ AAA affiliate in Pawtucket). He had a solid year, batting only .209 but hitting 21 homers with 64 RBI; still the Sox released him. After that, he apparently lied about being older than he actually was to play in a senior professional baseball league then took 1992 to play in Italy before finally, as the saying goes, hanging up his spikes.
The movie Field of Dreams is built around a few baseball tropes including the one that a man who loves baseball might do just about anything to play one more time or to have played well even once. I believe this trope. I was a terrible baseball player but I loved it. I can still remember the two home runs I hit in little league. I can still remember a brutally hot summer day when I caught all six innings of a game on a dirt diamond. I can still remember the one time I caught a foul ball as a catcher, throwing off my mask and lurching at the last second to catch the ball and then belly flop. I can still remember the one inning I pitched and the one boy I struck out.
Rick Lancellotti had some fine seasons in the minors. In 1979, when he was 22, he hit 41 home runs with 107 RBI for AA Buffalo. He was too good a player to remember all of those home runs, but I bet he remembers a few.
Something tells me, though, that Lancellotti remembers that last at bat for the Red Sox. Standing in the left-handed batter’s box at Fenway, he worked the count to 3 and 2 off Willie Fraser. Weather Underground tells us it was 90 degrees and muggy when Lancellotti swung at the sixth pitch and drove the ball deep to right field. I am certain he would have watched the ball carry, watched Dave Winfield catch it, and watched Tom Brunansky tag and score. Then he would have turned right, trotted into the Sox dugout. I am sure some of the guys got up to pat him on the back and on the head. Dwight Evans, Tony Pena for sure, maybe even the quiet Ellis Burks.
Lancellotti would have taken off his batting helmet and put his cap back on. I bet he looked back out on that brilliant Fenway grass. He just had a good at bat in a game in a year when the Red Sox won their division. We was living that dream.
My friend JoAnn sent me this picture. She wanted to know what year it was from. It’s from a Red Sox game, and at a glance it was pretty easy to decide that it was either from the late 1960s or the early 1970s. I might have been at the game with her and her family when she took the picture. JoAnn’s father took me along on at least two games. They were good seats, in the grandstand behind home plate. I think he got them through the postal union: back in the day when regular guys could take the family to the game without breaking the bank.
I could go in a million directions looking at this picture, but I started with JoAnn’s question. She wanted to know when it was taken, so I put some Twitter friends onto it. They nailed it. Don Hewitt figured out the uniform numbers and Lou Flynn figured out the uniform styles and they were able to conclude it was 1971. It was impressive.
Number 8 is Yaz of course, and Number 37 is Bill Lee. Lee came up on June 25, 1969, so it couldn’t be earlier than that.
The other two numbers and the uniform styles offered the remaining clues. My friends on Twitter came up with 1971 based on the likelihood that number 22 was probably John Curtis, number 3 was probably Mike Fiore, and that 1971 was also the last year the Sox wore flannel uniforms.
(That would mean it wasn’t my first Red Sox game with JoAnn and her family, which was my birthday, June 9, 1967 when I turned eight and the Red Sox beat the Washington Senators, 8-7. I’ve written about 1967 elsewhere. It was a magical season, and that game didn’t disappoint. Yaz and Joe Foy homered twice and Reggie Smith homered once. Jim Lonborg got hit pretty hard but Jose Santiago did long relief for the win and John Wyatt got the save.)
(By the way, there’s another story right there in recounting the stars of the game. In 1959, the Red Sox infamously had been the last team to integrate in major league baseball. They carried very few black players through the early 1960s. Yet here they were in 1967–the year they turned their failures around–and Foy, Smith, and John Wyatt were black. Another favorite player of mine, George Scott (the Boomer!) was also black; he doubled twice that day. I would like to think the owners and management of the Red Sox put 2+2 together that day regarding their, um. hiring practices but apparently they didn’t.)
(Also related to that game, and another possible angle for writing. As great a day it was for the Red Sox, my most vivid memory was produced by a player from the opposing team. From my perch behind home plate, I saw Frank Howard hit a freakishly long home run that was slicing and still rising as it cleared the Green Monster and the netting atop it.To this day it might have been the most amazing sight I have seen in a game.)
OK, now back to the picture.
If it was indeed 1971, I was likely there. I remember an early 1970s game with JoAnn’s family when I wrangled her dad into staying after the game for a bit to try to get autographs. I don’t know why he tolerated it (I was a guest, he had his four kids plus me with him), but he did, and we hung around for a while. I remember getting a shot at one from Joe Lahoud, an OK player briefly famous for being the youngest in major league history to hit three home runs in one game. Lahoud wandered off, though, after signing a few and we made our way home.
I had a program from that game and on the way home I used my fifth grade penmanship to forge Joe Lahoud’s autograph, but I knew I wouldn’t fool anyone with it. I put the program in a drawer and forgot about it. It’s long gone, but the picture isn’t. There it is, full of more stories than I can possibly relate.
Baseball grabbed me in the summer of 1967 and hasn’t let go since. That was the summer the Red Sox transformed themselves from perennial also-rans to a winning team. The Red Sox had last won the pennant in 1946, lost in a one-game tie-breaker to lose the pennant in 1948, and fell a game short in 1949.They would be good for a couple of more years after that, but in 1954 they finished an astonishing 42 games out of first place. They bottomed out in 1965, winning only 62 games and losing 100.
Attendance collapsed along with their record. In Ted Williams’ final season of 1960, the Red Sox averaged 14,674 fans per game, but by that dismal losing season of 1965, they only averaged 8,052 fans per game. If you’ve only been following the Red Sox for 10 or 20 or even 30 years, such a number must be surreal. Fenway has had at or near 30,000 fans at each game for more than 25 years. and more than 35,000 for 10 of the 11 last years.
I could–and perhaps I should–make the formal argument somewhere that in 1967 Carl Yastrzemski had the single greatest season in the history of baseball. He won the Triple Crown and the MVP while playing the best outfield defense in baseball that year. In an era when pitching absolutely dominated, Yaz put up amazing numbers. Cody Swartz of Bleacher Report nails it right here:
Yaz’s numbers were simply phenomenal, especially considering he did so in the middle of the biggest pitching era in baseball. Yaz led the league in home runs (44), and RBIs (121), and made a clean sweep of the percentages, topping in batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.418), slugging percentage (.622), on-base plus slugging (1.040), and adjusted OPS (195). He also finished first in runs scored (112), hits (189), total bases (360), runs created (150), runs created per game (9.90), extra-base hits (79), and times on base (284). He played virtually every game for the Sox (161) and grounded into just five double plays, one of the most overlooked yet nevertheless extremely important statistics.
But more than anything else we had Yaz. He came through in the clutch again and again, both in the field and at the plate. For the eight-year-old me, it was like watching a god walk on the field each game and deliver exactly what his followers needed.They even wrote a song after him (and we had the album).
So this year is my 50th season following the Red Sox. I saw Fisk’s homer in 1975. I watched Yaz’s shoulders sag when Bucky Fucking Dent hit his home run in 1978. I saw the ball go through Buckner’s legs in 1986. I was at Fenway for a playoff loss in 1995 and a playoff win in 1999. In 2004, had the Word Series gone to seven games, I would have been sitting there in season’s tickets I shared for more than a decade.
But here’s my secret: I stopped loving the Red Sox in 2003. Boston fans remember too well the seventh game of the American League Championship Series that year. The Red Sox were winning. 5-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. Pedro Martinez had pitched great, but Grady Little left him in too long, the Yankees rallied to tie it, and then won it in the 11th. Game over. Series over. Season over.
It was after 1:00 a.m. when the game ended. I had to calm down, so I took my dog for a walk, and as I circled my neighborhood, I saw how ridiculous it was to be a grown man, a father of two boys, up in the middle of the night, walking my dog to calm myself down over a game. It was, after all, a bunch of millionaires, playing for a bunch of billionaires. I was 44 years old. It was time to move on.
So when the Red Sox won in 2004, I was happy, I was even emotional, but it really didn’t matter a fraction of what it would have mattered a year before. That was the year the Red Sox came back from three games down in the ALCS, again to the Yankees, to win. I had kept myself busy during those days, going back and forth to NYC three times on business. I was on Amtrak two evenings when the conductors kept announcing the score of the games. I really didn’t want to hear it.
When they won and the Red Sox had their celebration in the city, I had a bad cold. I knew my boys would have loved to have gone, and they probably wondered what I was up to. They were 13 and 11, and had each gone to dozens of games already. We had shared those great season’s tickets for more than 10 years, and they were spoiled by it, truly. I remember watching the “Rolling Rally,” on TV, but I don’t remember if we watched it as a family. After years of going to games with them, showing them my love for the game and my team, that memory doesn’t feel so great.
We gave up our season’s tickets after that season. The prices had gone steadily up. Tickets we had purchased for $18 a few years before had gone to $65, and they raised them to $75 for the 2005 season. That meant, for the 20 tickets we would normally buy out of the season ticket package, we would pay $1500. To take the four of us to a game would be $300 just for the tickets, andnot including the parking and the food. My wife had the good sense to keep our money for ourselves.
Since then we’ve gone to a game or two a year. We would occasionally get the old seats, and dumb luck had us in them for Jon Lester’s no-hitter in 2008. That felt really good–not just the thrill of seeing something so rare, but seeing a nice young man do so well only two years after battling cancer.
Nothing so memorable has happened since for us as fans. My son and I did see the Red Sox win one playoff game in 2013 on their way to the World Series. We had nice seats in the center field bleachers, but they were nothing like our old seats, which were down the left-field line, 10 rows back, and close enough to Stephen King to watch him read a book between innings.
I don’t think I saw a game in person last year. If that’s true, it would have been the first time I hadn’t been to Fenway since 1986. I honestly don’t think much of going, but I have had a rule the past few years that I probably should go to a game a year.
(Heresy of heresies, I hate Fenway Park, and I have for years. It was built in 1912 for people a foot shorter than me. Some of the site lines have you turning your head ninety degrees to see home plate. An infuriatingly high percentage of the seats leave you guessing at what just happened in one corner of the field or another. You can pay full price for a view of a pole. Fenway has the highest combined prices in baseball for tickets, parking, food, and beer; making the average visit to the ballpark $314 for a family of four. That price assumes the family of four splits two hot dogs. Fun!)
Yet there I was this year on July 4th with my wife and friends. It was a good game on a baking hot day. We ran late, and by the time we got to our seats, the Sox were down 4-0 thanks to the pitching stylings of one Rick Porcello. He is a perfectly mediocre pitcher who makes $20 million dollars a year. I know we are supposed to be inured to these numbers by now, but $20 million is more than some Massachusetts towns put into their entire school budget for a year. I believe that is the definition of what they experts like to call “opportunity cost.”
Back in the day I would have been in agony arriving even a minute late. I would have been in my seat, scorecard open, pen in hand. I would have scored the whole game, and woe be to the person who suggested we leave early. I taught my boys to snarl at people who got up in the eighth inning to beat the crowd, especially in a close game. We would stay, win or lose, and file out with the big crowd.
It was hot yesterday, and the seats were in full sun. I enjoyed a beer and a slice (a decent microbrew for a mere $9.75) when we got there. A minute later I was baking. My wife, turned in her seat to watch the action at a 90 degree angle, was wedged into me. With her added body heat, I thought I would burst into flames. The Sox caught up, went ahead. The young woman next to me knew her baseball well, and we chatted about a few of the details of the game while my wife talked to her girlfriend.
In the fourth inning we went down to get ice cream. I didn’t hurry. It was cooler under the stands. When we headed back to the seats I walked instead up to a standing room area. It was nicely cool there. I couldn’t see the whole field, but not much was happening at that point, and the ice cream was really good.
We left in the middle of the sixth inning. The young woman next to me lost all respect for us, I am sure, but we were hot and tired. Our friends aren’t really fans, and their 9-year-old nephew had read for most of the game. We drove home in air conditioning, no radio on. I checked my app a few times. When our friends dropped us off at our car, we listened to a half an inning. I caught the ending, again on my app, sitting in my shady backyard. The Sox had won 12-5.
What a difference 50 years makes.
In that summer of 1967, I went to a Catholic Charities summer camp. It was a glorious two weeks in a postage-sized camp near the beach. I was homesick for exactly one evening, and then I was all good. My mom, an aunt, and my grand-uncle wrote me almost every day. I couldn’t read my grand-uncle’s cursive, so one of the Catholic brothers read it to me. My brother, god bless him, sent me a postcard each day with an abbreviated box score of the Red Sox game. Sox 6, Balt 4. W for Santiago. 2B and 3B for Conigliaro. Sox now 1½ GB.
The Sox went on a ten-game win streak that began while I was away and ended the day after I came home. The superstitions of baseball were already ingrained in me, and I considered asking my mother if I could go back to camp so the Sox would start winning again. For the rest of the summer and into September, they were in a four-team race for the pennant. My mother was in grad school then, teaching during the days and going to classes at night. That same great uncle would babysit and watch the games with us. My brother and I would hurl ourselves over the back of the couch, pretending to be Yaz going back on a fly ball and catching it, each and every time.
For an agonizing week at the end of September they were in second, then clung to first, then fell behind by one game with two games remaining. They went into the final two games of the season against first-place Minnesota, and won the first game, setting up the finale. They needed to win and they needed California to beat Detroit.
They won, and they won because of Yaz. In the final two games of the season, with the pennant on the line, Yaz went seven for eight with six RBIs. In the finale, he went 4-4. With the Sox down 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning of the last game, Yaz tied the game with a two-run single, and then he scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. The Sox won 5-3, Detroit lost, and the Sox advanced to the World Series for the first time in 21 years.
It was a great World Series, even if the Sox lost. The Cardinals were a transcendent team then, led by Bob Gibson, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Gibson won games one, four, and seven, and even hit a goddamned home run off Lonborg in the seventh game. I was crushed, but even at eight I was wise enough to know the better team won.
I had snuck my transistor radio and earpiece to school for the World Series games. They were day games then, and started late enough in the afternoon that I only had to get away without being caught for the last hour of school. I had the sweet and lovely Mrs. Radcliffe that year for third grade, and somehow I knew that if she did catch me she wouldn’t be that hard on me. She would probably have just confiscated the radio and given it to my mother, who taught down the hall. My mother would have scolded me, but she would have understood. She loved the Sox almost as much as I did.
Yaz ended his Hall of Fame career in 1983. In his farewell speech before his last game at Fenway he said, “Over the years, I’ve learned that Red Sox fans are the greatest and most loyal. I hope I’ve represented Boston and New England with class and dignity.”
Indeed he had. He had taken over in left field when Ted Williams retired, and he was the opposite of Ted in many ways. Ted was a brilliant, once-in-a-century talent, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.” He was explosive and profane, famously outsized in everything he did, from baseball to flying jet planes in two wars. Yaz was a quiet man who made the most of what he admitted was modest talent. He had willed and worked his way to excellence.
Yaz played his last game on October 2, 1983. The Sox won that day, closing out a bad season at 78-84, 20 games behind the Orioles. Oddly enough, the Red Sox had reverted almost perfectly to their form of the 1950s and early 1960s, when the team was bad but somehow full of offensive stars. Wade Boggs won the batting title, and Jim Rice led the league in home runs with 39 and tied for the league in RBI with 126.
Yaz had had the kind of year you might expect from a 44-year-old man. He hit .266 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs in 380 at bats. There would be no 4-4 that day. And there would be no parting home run in his last at bat they way Williams had done 23 years before. Yaz went 1-3 with a walk, and in his final at bat he popped out to second.
I watched the game alone in my apartment, sitting in a wooden chair in my tiny kitchen. I thought back to that 1967 season, my brother sending me those box scores, the two of us hurling ourselves over the sofa. Of course I cried that day. Was it about childhood lost? Was it about letting go of the last of my heroes? I was 24 by then, working, married, and in graduate school, and wasn’t watching much baseball then.
I would reclaim it, though. Two years later, with Clemens in his prime, my brother and I walked up to the same Fenway we had gone to 10 and 15 years before. We bought standing-room-only seats, and watched Clemens pitch a gem of a game. 10 years after that, I was sitting with my family in some of the best seats in the stadium. Then, in 2003, I was kind of done.
I still follow them, but from a distance. I read about them much more than I watch or listen to the games. Really though, even with my distance from the game I once loved, it has been a great run. I saw that no-hitter. I saw Reggie Jackson, Cal Ripken, George Brett, Ken Griffey, and a score of other players. I saw two great but tainted players–Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire–hit home runs. And I saw two and now three generations of Sox players come up from the minors, sometimes play their whole careers and move on. Yaz is 76 now. 76. I can hardly believe it.
Gail Mazur, also a Sox fan, has a great poem, “Baseball,” where she reminds us “this is not / not even a slice of life” and talks about not straining for analogies (though of course she finds analogies, and nails them). So I won’t strain too hard, because even if I do, I won’t quite get there. So I will just say that I once loved the game, and have stayed with it for 50 years, and may well come to love it again.
My tastes have shifted in the last decade, but for perhaps 20 years I had a ready answer if someone asked me my favorite writer. It was Andre Dubus (the father and not the son, who is also a wonderful writer). Yesterday I found myself reading Dubus’ essay, “Brothers,” a meditation on friendship and how lives shift and change. It was published in a posthumous book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair.
The essay revolves around baseball games he attended with friends, Red Sox opening over a period of many years. At one point in the essay, Dubus reflects on the concentration it takes to play baseball and also to write. “Wade Boggs, watching a pitch come to the plate, starting his stride and swing, probably does not know his own name, for his whole being is concentrated on that moving white ball.” He then goes on to say, “These moments are so pure, they may be sacred.” Dubus was a devout Catholic, and he never shied away from tying the commonplace to the spiritual. In another essay in that same book, he discusses how making a meal for another person is a kind of sacrament. I couldn’t agree more.
I have been thinking about my writing process. Since I started my daily practice sixth months ago today, I have learned one very important thing about myself: I write much better, more productively, without distractions and without interruption. I have found myself up here in this office in moments of the kind of concentration Dubus describes. I pick my hands up from the keyboard, and I stare at a tall bookshelf. I am too far away from it to read anything but a very few words on certain book spines. I know the words so well now–“Sports Illustrated 50,” “Dennis Lehane,” “Vineland”–that they are more image than words. I can stare at the top shelves and think only of the question in front of me. What word do I need? Does this scene make sense? What would this character do? Perhaps that concentration has produced a better next sentence, a better next scene.
I have written a great deal over my life, including sections of three books, co-writing two of them. In 2001, I co-wrote a book, Digital Rights Management: Business and Technology. It’s a very good book, mainly because of the keen intellect of the main author, Bill Rosenblatt, and his determination to make it so. I ended up writing four chapters, and was having trouble with the fourth, when I had to travel to Berlin on business. The deadline for the fourth chapter was going to fall the day after I was giving a talk at a conference. I wasn’t well prepared for the talk either. At the last minute, I decided to extend the trip in Berlin, add two days before the conference, giving myself the chance to do my writing and more thoughtfully prepare for my talk.
The hotel key card is from the trip. I remember the Steigenberger as a nice hotel, modern, in a great neighborhood. It lightened my spirits as soon as I saw it. I arrived–as business people often do–in the morning after an overnight flight. I set up at a sleek desk in from of big bright windows. I went right to work, had a productive day of writing, then found a restaurant with outdoor seating. It was a beautiful Spring evening. I had nearly finished the chapter, then finished it the next morning, emailed it to my editor, and returned to the same restaurant. It wasn’t quite noon yet, but I celebrated with a beer.
Whatever is working for me now–uninterrupted quiet–didn’t work for me then. I often liked to work where it was noisy, or where I had distractions–music, or conversations, or something idiotic to do on the computer, like a game or email. I co-wrote two books that way, dozens of professional articles, even more marketing pieces. I wrote in hotel rooms, bars, public libraries, Amtrak trains and planes, conference rooms in stolen moments between meetings.
I couldn’t work that way now. Am I doing something better? Something worse? Have I changed? If a student came to me with this question, I could never offer a firm answer, but my first idea is that I have changed. I had a kind of energy before that I don’t have now–advantage 41-year-old-Bill–but now I have a mental quiet that I didn’t have then–advantage 56-year-Bill.
I would talk to the student, get more of a picture of what they were doing, thinking, and why it worried them. I would ultimately ask the student if the new process was working, if they felt productive and satisfied with what they produced. If the answer were yes, I would tell them, don’t overthink it. It’s all good.
When I was finishing the draft of my novel in November and December, I made a fruitful discovery. I had decided to place the action of the novel in September 2008, when the world economy was collapsing. It had a direct effect on my protagonist, who loses his job, sending the rest of the action into motion.
I was writing this novel in fits and starts, starting in the fall of 2012, then 2013, then finally bearing down and finishing the draft in 2015. At each of these stages, I was four, then five, then seven years away from the details of the story. My research led me to the Internet. What was happening on September 8th of that year? On September 15th, and so on? There was a great deal I could read to remind myself of the events, both major and minor, of those traumatic weeks.
Then the Internet proved to be even more of a treasure trove. My protagonist is a Red Sox fan. How were they doing then? Their season would disappoint–I remembered that–but I did not remember precisely how it disappointed. I had him follow some games on television while he drank in bars, then I had him go in person to a game that ended badly. Baseball-Reference.Com told me exactly how it ended badly. That then led to a key scene.
Delightfully, I decided I could use the actual weather from those days. He was outside a lot. What was the actual weather, and how would that shape certain scenes? So rather then decide I wanted him to get caught in the rain, I started his day, and then looked up the weather, and discovered he would get caught in the rain. Then what would happen? The process led to some twists I enjoyed, others that I struggled with, and others that I wrote around. When you are 6’2 and 240 pounds and middle-aged, getting caught in the rain is different from being 5’8 and 145 pounds and 23 years old.
Which leads me to this ticket stub.This was a time when my family and I still attended a fair number of Red Sox games, usually five or more a year. Careful readers will note it was the year the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. It was an inter-league game, mid-summer. My younger son would have been 11, my older son about to turn 13. From the date, I can tell that it is likely the game I chose–close to my birthday and Father’s Day.
It was not a good day for the Sox. They lost, badly, 9-2, trailing 7-1 after the top of the fourth inning. Bronson Arroyo got shelled, and Nomar, Ortiz, and Manny went a combined 3 for 12 with a single RBI. It was unseasonably cool for late June, only 63 degrees when the game started at 1:26, but it was very humid. There had been a brief shower just before noon. We would have been getting in the car by then. The boys were old enough that we would have driven to the subway, then taken it the rest of the way into the city.
Did we have a good time? I honestly don’t remember, but even though I hate the Red Sox losing, I still love being at Fenway. And those were great seats, maybe 12 rows back from the field, behind the visitors’ dugout. We didn’t know the Red Sox would win that year. On that day, they were five games behind the Yankees for first place in the division. Indeeed, it would get worse. They would start the next week losing three games in a row to the Yankees, falling 8 1/2 games behind with the third loss, in a game Nomar famously sat out while Jeter made a gutsy play, falling into the stands to catch a fly ball.The Sox lost in 13 innings. Nomar sat out the entire game, and by the end of month he was traded. The rest, as they say, is history.
I actually remember the trade more than the game. We were on vacation, on the Maine coast, and I bought the local paper, saw the headline. My boys and I stood on the porch of the main building at Ferry Beach, trying to absorb the news. It felt like they had traded Nomar for a bucket of balls, two guys–Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz–we had barely heard of. Nomar was the face of the franchise–there he is printed on every ticket stub that year, throwing across his body in that unconventional style so many of us loved. My boys had his autograph on balls. He had talked to them. But we were on vacation, and as upset as we might be, we were enjoying ourselves too much to really be troubled.
So the Internet tells me many things, helps me scrape certain details together, but others are lost of course, lost to memory, the passing years, bigger things shaping what we remember and felt about those times. My mom died earlier that year, and my siblings and I splintered even more. I found more connection, more solace, in both church and Ferry Beach. I remember the hugs at my mom’s wake much more than I remember most anything else from that year. I remember sad days and nights of business travel, hotels in distant cities, landing at night after a long trip. I remember my last moments with my mother, then visiting her church, sitting through a mass that I knew meant a great deal to her but little to me. Those things I remember, and remember deeply. They will stay with me for my whole life, even if that Red Sox game is lost to memory.
When I was in elementary school, at least for a few years, we had a lunch break, and kids went home for lunch. I remember it being for maybe an hour. But more significant for me was that there was no home to go to—my mom was working, and my dad had already moved out. I was a latchkey kid, but I probably wasn’t enough of a latchkey kid to go home, make a lunch, and return to school. Maybe my mother worried for my safety, or maybe she worried I would forget to go back, and she would find me, hours later, watching TV or bouncing a ball off the front steps.
So instead of going home, I would take my lunch and go to a drugstore near my school, and sit at the soda fountain. I would order a coke—the price, apparently, for being able to kill an hour at the counter—and eat my sandwiches. My mom was relentlessly practical. Lunch each day was two ham and cheese sandwiches on the white bread di tutti white bread of greater Boston—Wonder bread. Each sandwich had exactly one piece of boiled ham, one piece of American cheese, and a smear of mustard. This was my lunch each day, every day, for my 12 years of elementary and high school. Nothing else. No apple or cookies or chopped carrots. I could probably be part of a study sometime on what happens to human a body when it faithfully eats the wrong food for so many years in a row.
I probably have his name wrong, but I had a classmate, Danny Mars, who used to join me on some of those days. Something had him in the same category as me. Maybe he had a single mom, or both parents worked. Memory tells me I didn’t have lunch with him every day, but I did often enough. If I could talk to him today, I would probably compare lunches with him. I doubt we ever traded anything. What kid would ever want a ham and cheese sandwich in trade?
After we ate, we would head back to the school playground.
I remember two stories from after lunch those days.
On nicer days, kids would gather on the huge (well huge as I remember it), asphalt playground behind the school. It had the outline of a baseball diamond, a very short left field, a deep center field, and a right field that opened up into an even bigger stretch of asphalt playground. If you stood in deep center field, which I often did, and put your back to the tall chain-link fence, you were just under a canopy of trees from the property beyond the fence.
I loved center field. I wasn’t a good athlete, but I was fast, and I could cover ground. When a ball came through or over the infield, I could usually get to it, and throw it back in, hold the kicker to one base or two. I played deep. I liked having the whole field in front of me, partly because I simply could not reliably go back on a ball. I would twist the wrong way, then the right way, then the wrong way again. I bet that I simply never caught a ball over my head.
But I could come in on a ball. I could use my speed to close the gap, and even occasionally catch it on the fly. It was a freaking blast.
One day I was in my spot, and this boy came to the plate. He was my nemesis. The best athlete in class by a long, long measure. And he loved to harass me about what a complete loser I was as an athlete. I could comfort myself in the knowledge that I was smarter than him by the same measure he was a better athlete than me, but that did not count in elementary school.
But the kickball gods were looking down on me that day, because when he got his chance to kick the ball, he—of course—blasted it. It was a beautiful, high, arcing kick, but straight to me. The only question was whether it would go over my head and clearethe fence. I stepped backward until my back hit the fence. The ball was coming down and I could finally see that it would be in my grasp, but then I realized it would crash through the canopy of trees before it reached me.
I steeled myself. I wasn’t athletic enough to do anything more than hold my ground, and hold out my arms like I was about to catch a baby. The ball arrived, crashed through some branches, and hit my arms. I grabbed at, kept it from bouncing out, squeezed it to my chest. He was out.
My teammates cheered. I would only figure out years later that he had tortured them all, so this wasn’t only my triumph in our little universe; it was everyone’s triumph. I tried to act like it was nothing. I stepped away from the fence, and kicked the ball back toward home plate, waited for someone to gather the ball, get it back to the pitcher. But I heard the calls from my teammates. “Way to go, Billy!” and “Nice catch!” My heart was bursting.
I had two modes when I was a kid—I was either brainless or I was frozen in terror. I did many of the stupid things boys did in those days. I jumped off rooves, climbed high trees and telephone poles, poked around through who knows what in the town dump, rode my bike through traffic. We had an abandoned Army fort down the street from where I lived, with buildings that had to be broken into, windows that had to be smashed, tunnels that had to be explored.
But other times I was full of doubt and frozen. Sometimes when my friends broke into a new building, I would stand back. When the windows started to break, I would walk home. When they blasted through an intersection, riding wheelies through traffic, I would sometimes stop at the curb, wait for the traffic to pass. Evolutionary biology now tells me this reaction was probably the better one, but it was hard to do this when you were a kid. Hard to be the careful one, the cautious one. “Trip’s a fucking pussy” was the inverse of “Way to go, Billy!”
One day Danny Mars and I left the drugstore, and headed back to school. I was in my prudent mode, and decided not to cross the busy street right outside the drugstore, but instead to walk up to the crosswalk, where the street was wider, not crowded by parked cars, and the sight lines were better. Not Danny. He was impatient that day, or maybe he was impatient every day and normally I was too, but I headed up the sidewalk, Danny to my back, as he stepped through the parked cars and right in the path of a moving one. I can still hear the breaks squealing, the thud. I can’t recall whether he cried out or not, but he was crying when I got back, laying in the street. Some adults were already there—maybe the driver, maybe people from the drugstore and the other businesses—men as I remember, and smart enough to keep me at my arm’s length, helping me not see some things I would not want to remember.
My memory is that he broke his leg, and I also remember that somehow I got in trouble, too, if not from school, maybe from my mother. Maybe she wasn’t angry as much as she was scared. Scared that I could have been the one that had done the stupid thing, and that something worse could have happened because I had to eat lunch at a soda fountain instead of at home with her.
Of course I could have the whole memory wrong. Maybe I crossed too, but ahead of him, and I heard the accident behind me not because I had walked up the sidewalk but because I had bolted across the street ahead of him. Maybe I had done exactly that, but lied to cover up what I had done wrong. Maybe Danny and I were guilty of the same thing, and I had been the lucky one. Maybe he wasn’t hurt as badly, or maybe was hurt worse. Or maybe he wasn’t hurt at all. Maybe the squealing breaks I remember were followed by a bellowing man. “You stupid fucking kids!” Maybe Danny and I bolted up the street, laughing, turned into the school playground, and joined the kickball game. Maybe that was also the magical day I caught that kicked ball, and Danny was right next to me when I drop-kicked the ball back into the infield, cheering me on. “Way to go, Billy! Way to go!”