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.