Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Days go by too slowly, and the years go by too fast

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The mitt was an 8-inch Mizzuno; once brown but bleached yellow by more summer suns than it should have – when I should have found a bigger one but didn’t have the hands to break in another pocket. It was an infielder’s mitt, I was told. And for the first year I used it I played as good a shortstop as any eight-year-old I’ve seen since then. It didn’t have as much padding as the kind I see these days, just the tar stain on the heel from fielding balls in the street too soon after it was paved. I guess I was about my little brother’s age when that happened. When you’re in single digits, baseball comes even before the Good Humor bells. Tar might as well have been hot lava.

But on this day, the mitt wasn’t mine anymore. It was my little brother’s; I’d retired it and he’d made it his, all eight inches perfectly creased the way an eight-year-old would like it. And he did like it. He didn’t use his own mitts for a while, all the new ones my mother had bought for him. All of that shiny leather never felt right, I guess. He was letting me use it, you see. I once asked my father to autograph Albert Belle’s name in the palm, and if I looked long enough and lied a little bit to myself I could still see it. Where it used to be. Albert Belle shouldn’t have been my favorite player; he never did anything to deserve it besides make lots of people angry and hit home runs with a batting stance I could mimic to perfection. But I liked him, and my dad wrote the name in my mitt. Years after, I found out what Albert’s real signature looked like. Round, lazy, juvenile. The one my dad wrote looked nothing like it. He did it the same way he did his own, just with different letters. I see things like that when I look at my old mitt.

That day using the Mizzuno I was in the front yard of my mom’s house. I’m throwing Wiffleballs to my little brother. There were probably a few ghost runners on; it always seems like there are a few ghost runners on with him. But then I start my wind up, and he gets up on his tip-toes like there was a fire running under his heels; bending his arms all over the place like he was an origami project. Said he’d seen a ballplayer posing in the batters box like that on television. So I got to thinking about all the players I wished I’d seen.

Like Mantle, how he learned to trot when he couldn’t run anymore. How I always thought I’d like him better that way. Ted Williams rubbing the wooden handle like a blind man reading brail. How he’d probably hit at least .280 even if he was. How Rose always finished his triples like he should have had a cape blowing behind him. How Mays turned the centerfield prairie of the polo grounds into a putting green. How they’d say the same in the Bronx about DiMaggio, who always looked like he combed his hair between innings. Aaron always grinning; Brock always moving, and how much my father loved him. And Koufax with a face straight as rail road tracks, throwing that curveball past batters like they were swinging 30 inches of dental floss. Juan Marichal with a leg kick like he was asking the clouds to shine his cleats. How the baseball cards back then were about as thick as the tops of pizza boxes, and how the players on them always made kids like me feel like we were missing out on something.

I like the way Jim Brown looks on videotape, running through a secondary like one of those kids in Pop Warner who always end up getting moved up a division the next week. And maybe I wish I’d appreciated Barry Sanders stoic brilliance a little more. But when I miss the things I’ve never even seen I’m usually missing a baseball player. I don’t blame that on When It Was A Game, or the stuff Ken Burns made, or Bums, or playing Strat-o-Matic baseball with my brother, or my love for baseball caps, or centerfield being one of the few things I’ve ever felt good at. I don't even blame it on the last 3 minutes of Field of Dreams, or the way my dad winked at me when we saw those three on a television in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those are nice things, some of them perfect things. But I’ve never known football to be as tragic as baseball. And tragedy has a way of sticking with you. I guess I never held onto all of that NFL Films-Steve-Sabol-Montana-In-Slow-Motion stuff because I never felt I was one of those guys. Football players were bigger than me, stronger than me, cooler than me; too many girls wearing their varsity jackets. And when they departed from the sidelines and shoulder pads it always seemed natural, it was all part of the way the game went. Their faces always hidden, even; cold and muddy. But baseball, well, that was just an extension of playing catch. And catch was something I did.

Baseball players leave and you lose something that felt a part of you. I never saw any of those players I’d wished I’d seen – not before they became famous for being famously good at baseball, that is. But I knew enough about them to know they disappeared. From from Vin Scully’s voice, from AM radio. From someone’s heart. They disappeared from something, I just wanted to experience exactly what it was. I was pretty sure I knew all the good stuff that there was to remember, but I just wanted the reason to. Baseball makes me feel like that.

I don’t know a lot about Michigan football - nothing before Charles Woodson, at least. I remember things happening after the time when I’d declared my love, and all the people that asked me what I thought of them. But that was all. “Can you believe what that Westbrook kid from Colorado did to you?” I can remember hearing that a few times. Something happened that I wasn’t supposed to like – and if Michigan lost, I’m sure I didn’t – but I’m pretty sure all sports passions are acquired gradually. Maybe not gradually (I cried when T.J. Duckett caught that pass, after all), but at least not all at once.

What I mean, though, is that I can’t entirely remember a desire to feel for the Michigan players I never saw. Not tsame way I feel for these Michigan players. The ones I’ve cried for. I’ve seen Kordell Stewart throw that Hail Mary enough times to know that hoping it goes incomplete never works, but watching it is more a rite of passage. I know it happened, I know somewhere, to some kid, that it was his Dusty Mangum field goal.

But a few weeks ago I saw something about a player named Tony Boles. He was one of those tragic kinds of players. He was from Michigan. I watched the small bit of video I could find; I read the words people had written. And for the first time I wished I’d actually seen him before he was famous for being famously good at football. That picture up top is the only picture I could find of him, just something from an old team photo so blurred that all the emotion has vanished.

I searched for more time than I realized, in places where I expected no pictures to exist, in image databases and game recaps. But that was all there was, just that from a career that was supposed to be so much more than it turned out to be. I found a football jersey someone claims he wore; they were selling it for a penny less than a thousand dollars. And for a brief moment – not as brief as it should have been – I tried to justify ever spending that much. Because this was Tony Boles, the man I never got to see.

I watched his video again today, and I tried not to picture the man he’s become. How badly he failed, where the drugs have taken him and how far he is from where Tony Boles – # 42 – should be. That video is the way you want to know him. Just like the story your grandpa told you of the freckled girl who worked at the soda shop near the beach; the one with green eyes and brown hair, pretty legs and a short skirt. It’s always best to just look at the old pictures of her he has in a shoebox than to visit the old lady she is now. Everyone always tells me how much I need to get out of the past, how crippling and worthless it can be. But I've realized that sometimes the past is the best place to stay. I miss that past with Tony Boles, I miss him because I’ve never seen him.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Shawn said...

Johnny, wonderful; just wonderful. I love the reference to CJ, great kid. I agree with you that the future, even the present, can be a destructive thing. We should be able to look to the past for security because we know it. We understand it. Reading things like this make me regret everything I have done, but also be thankful for it. It was a pleasure to read. Your a pleasure to know.


P.S. The Break-up: June 2nd.
Be there!

6:08 AM  
Anonymous Lordfoul said...

Wow man. Reading your stuff makes my hair stand up on end. Awesome, just awesome. I have to admit, I cried the day Boles went down with that injury. I was only 11 and I cried and cried. What a bitter memory... it is tragic what has become of him since.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Maize n Brew Dave said...

Absolutley top notch work Johnny. Some of your best work yet.

I think you captured it perfectly. When I think of football, my synaptic response is not one of failure but of triumph. The catches. The runs. The blind heaves that somehow found fingertips in the back of the endzone.

But when I think of baseball, like you said, I think of tragic heroes like Bo Jackson, the Mick, even to some extent Barry Bonds. People who's highest moments were always accompanied by cayonlike flaws, whether personal or physical.

In baseball, the roles these men play make the game special. They are able to be an individual part of our memory as well as part of the collective experience of baseball. They grow up with us, and they grow old with us. We watch them as their skills mature, climax and slowly fade. Their careers as a whole mark who they are to us. It is not a single shining moment, but a body of work that forms our memory. Inevitably, our hero falls slowly back to earth.

However, with football, the game is what dominates our thoughts rather than the players. Perhaps its because in football we replace those parts so readily that we don't have the same tragic memories. Perhaps its because in football, the great ones can't hang around "one more year". You remember them at their prime, because they could never play the game at anything less. We know them as conquerors, rather than the conquered.

In their primes, star football players seem almost immortal. Perhaps we associate ourselves with them, cling to them, because they are an escape from our own mortality.

The tragic life of Tony Boles is a reminder of that mortality we all wish to ignore when we watch football. Perhaps that is why it took so long to tell his story.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Shawnie, we'll be there for sure. Thanks for the comment, you too lordfoul.

Dave, I hope that post of yours makes its way to a place more visible than my comments section. That was excellent, really was.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johnny,

One of the finer essays I have read in a long time. Submit it to Sports Illustrated, you never know.

A reader

10:45 PM  
Blogger Kenny said...

Great work Johnny, one of the best I've read in a while. I, like you, am too young to remember watching Tony Boles so all I have are these clips that we can find on the internet but reading his story is very sad.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a student at M when Tony and then Tripp went down with those injuries. I had the opportunity to know Tony at South Quad and he was a great guy. I will continue to pray for him.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Maize n Brew Dave said...

Johnny-

Finally crawled out from under my office long enough to put something up on this.

Let me know what you think.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sat next to Tony in Biology class at John Glenn HS in 1986.

As for what he looked like - Michigan RB, Michael Hart has very similar eyes. Boles at 6' 205 lbs was otherwise much different than Hart.

At Michigan I remember comparing Tony Boles to a gazelle when he ran the ball & broke open. So fast and so graceful.

Don Shane (local Detroit sports anchor) asked Tony in an interview how he's able to run like he does. His answer was "I don't like getting hit".

Bummer. I've got the Minnesota game on tape & can't really tell much from the play that put him out. It looked like a typical tackle or push out of bounds at the sideline. It was a 17 yard gain & he didn't appear to be in a ton of pain. Perhaps he hid it well.

The last I remember him saying was that the Michigan coaches were pushing him to come back too fast after the injury.

7:33 PM  
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12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew Tony at JGHS, he was a good friend of mine. I am very saddend by the way his life has tragically turned out. He was beautiful to watch, every sport he participated in he was excellent at. To watch him run track was truly amazing. It is so hard to see someone with such talent go down the path he has chose. I only hope someday he has some peace. I know with all he has done it is hard to see the good in someone, but he really was a good person sometime ago.

1:29 PM  
Blogger pedro velasquez said...

unfortunately, doggone it for Brandon, sportsbook his ankle is better but his shoulder isn’t. He wasn’t able to do anything (Tuesday), don’t know how much he’s going to be able to do (Wednesday), so unfortunately for Brandon he’s doubtful.” On Saturday he will be there. Maybe not on Thursday or on Friday, but you don’t bet nfl prepare for the deranged violence. He doesn’t don’t need to. Ohio. You could be somewhere else instead. Somewhere far away and detached from all of this, the disaster that continues to blend into last year and become everything we swore this wasn’t. You could have been drafted. An apartment with barren white walls in some city you’ve never been to; clean and empty aside from a plasma television, a sectional sofa, a stack of sneaker boxes in a corner
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9:27 AM  
Anonymous betting software said...

yeah tell me about it, I know what you are talking about sometimes time goes by too slowly and sometimes it goes too quickly

11:27 PM  

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