Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"Being adrift in a meaningless universe"

When I was eight-years-old I played shortstop on my little league team, even caught the final out in the championship game off a kid who years later would have more sex with prettier girls than I would. My coach at the time owned a roofing company; he was the kind of guy who wore short sleeve polo shirts with no t-shirt underneath and a gold chain that hung down to wear his chest hair started. He wore sunglasses and sometimes a windbreaker when it got cold, and he had too much money to care that it probably wasn’t the right attire for a guy who was built like a U-Haul. He’d give these demonstrative handshakes; your fingers would just vanish into a ball of calluses and knuckles, and you'd lurch forward a little bit, always as if by surprise - like the last dollar bill in your wallet getting sucked into a soda machine. But you’d get your hand back, and when you did you felt sort of like a real baseball player, like you actually deserved a handshake for fitting half a pack of Big League Chew in your mouth at once. I remember he came running at me after I caught that last out, slammed his two cupped palms on my shoulders like a harness for one of those roller coasters I always worried I wouldn’t be tall enough to ride. And he looked at me, leaning over enough so that I’d know to listen properly, and he said, “You take this ball and you keep it.” And the “forever” was implied. I still have the baseball, and the eight-inch Mizzuno is the one I used to catch it.

We wore red jerseys then – the default-red they give you in little league, like the way a blob of ketchup looks on a white paper plate – and I made sure to get number 8 (since that was Albert Belle’s number, and in 1995 I was naiive enough to figure the game of baseball was lucky to have him.) I didn’t exactly see professional sports as a legitimate career path, but as an eight-year-old you never rule it out. When you’re that young, guys as good as Albert are always destinations, someone you can become, just further along than you are. Eventually that changes. They’ll always be icons to you, of course, but at a certain point you stop trying to follow them and learn to just pin all your emotions to them instead – like I do the 12 Saturdays a year Michigan plays.

I scored 16 points in an intramural basketball game in the fifth grade; ran for a seven-yard touchdown as the backup quarterback for my Pop Warner team; and once, when my brother was catcher, I struck out 10 batters and only walked one in a fall-league playoff game. In warm-ups before my next start the assistant coach had me do some kind of special arm stretches, like I was this big-shot who had any idea how to pitch to begin with. My start went the way you might expect, with me throwing enough wild pitches that my brother yelled at me from behind the plate the way we always have at the dinner table. A week or so later the playoffs ended. That was the last team I was ever on.

I’d hate to think the reason I write about sports is because I was never very good at playing them, but unfortunately it’s probably at least partly true. When you can’t play anymore you reach for anything you can, even when there’s never much to grab. So in high school my sophomore English teacher gave me an A for my paper on A Catcher in the Rye and I decided writing about sports was what I had to do instead. It was like getting dumped by your girlfriend, only convincing yourself the two of you can remain friends. Years later, nothing’s changed. The love’s still there (because it never disappears from your first); maybe it’s just aged with time. It sits on a dusty book shelf now - that ball I caught years ago and all the hope that went with it. But now it's just a memory, like the old bottle of her perfume you never got rid of. With all those drops no less potent than they were on your shirt collars.

I think the saying goes “a face made for radio”, but in my time writing at the newspaper, I’ve realized that the ugliness that’s supposed to capture exists more among low-level journalists than anythwhere else. The kind of guy driving his Hyundai with 200 thousand miles on it, drinking discount coffee from gas stations where the ATMs never work, and getting no closer to pussy than a 900 number will take him. I’d fit an alligator for a retainer before I traded my nights at the paper and the hours at the bar after, but I meet people like that. It’s a harrowing thought by itself, magnified for sports journalists because of all the athletic valiance they once envisioned for themselves; how quickly it left them and how concrete the fact is that they’ll never experience it again.

It seems like such a soul-slaying concept: monitoring a bunch of guys you wish you could trade places with and turning it into something people want to read about – we’re the king’s butlers, really, never far from a glimpse of the world so much more enchanting than our own. It’s a job, but the thrill comes from nestling into the orbit of their world. The sidelines are the best we’ve got.

I write for synergy, my passion linked to the players’ through literature. But as a writer I'm nothing without being able to explain someone else’s emotions to them. With that there’s a sense of obligation, but also the knowledge of how much I'm responsible for. Perhaps it’s because me and the people who watch on television are so similar: if they were any better they’d be playing themselves, creating memories instead of savoring those created by the guys they watch on television. Instead they scream when I do and much louder than they should. Sometimes you don’t know why it happens (I still don’t know exactly why the Penn State game meant as much to me as it did) but it does anyway. It’s like taking all that incoherence and numbness that accompanies every dream and meshing it perfectly with reality for the person who dreamt it. They’ll just sit there, close their eyes and listen to you explain everything that happened to them. And they’ll feel exactly the way they did when they were asleep. How amazing it’d be to help people remember their dreams.

A few weeks ago I sat down with the USBA Welterweight Champion three days after he’d taken the title in El Paso, Texas. We talked for 30 minutes – some about his fight, some about his career, and some about his girlfriend. And when I left from the basement of his community gym and walked to my car through the sticky spring rain, I felt like my life had improved over the previous half-hour. His name was Delvin Rodriguez, a 26-year-old theologian from the Dominican Republic who also happened to box for a living. He moved to my home town as a young boy; he became a boxer and never had to stop boxing because he wasn’t good enough. When he was little he never had the money to buy new sneakers, when he got to middle school he protected all the pretty little girls; and when he met the man I will always know as “the professor”, he turned into the Welterweight Champion with an artist’s hands and a butchers' fists.

I asked Delvin how much different he would have turned out if he hadn’t dealt with such a struggle when he was younger. He told me, “If you’re given everything you want when you’re a child, you’ll never learn to appreciate things, how to work for yourself. If you take a little bird when it’s born and you keep it with you in your home, you just can’t hope for that bird to grow up and go out into the world. It won’t survive.”

He was talking about himself, but he was thinking about everyone - how all the baby birds learn to survive. I’ve covered more girl’s basketball games than I’d want to in 10 lifetimes (which is to say, I’ve covered more than zero) and yet when I hear things like that, I can’t help but think the world envies me. His trainer Lou Fusco – The Professor – told me over the phone “I’m more proud of the things I’ve taught him about being a man than being a boxer. His father isn’t here, so it was time to take him across the bridge from a kid to a man. I know that it’s a lot better when you have a man walk across with you.” Lou’s father used to take him to the fights when he was a kid, and he’s essentially been watching boxers and telling them what he thinks ever since. In a way, his life hasn’t changed since he was an eight-year-old. Lucky him.

“Boxing is more a disease than a sport,” he said. “Fortunately Delvin has the wherewithal to do it. Lots of kids come through my gyms and I have to say ‘look son, get a job, this isn’t for you.’ You have to have passion, ability; you can’t make it by yourself.”

I never worried about the part of me that loved sports decaying – It’d take an ocean of acid and all the wrath of an Armageddon just to dent that part. I worried about finding a way to replace the feeling I used to get striking out 10 batters with my brother calling signs even though I couldn’t harness my curveball if I tried; the kind of thing that makes the hairs on your arm stand up like they were running from a flame.

One of the greatest moments of my life was when my brother and I were playing a pickup football game against a few punks from the school team. They were having a bad year, so they thought they’d compensate by beating us instead. My brother – an Ohio State fan, who rooted for Michigan with me against Penn State – was playing quarterback. I was receiver. No one had plays designed (not even him and I), you just sort of went to the line and got open. He looked at me before the snap; put the ball up to his mouth, whispered “Manningham.” We had never discussed plays before, not even once, but I didn’t need him to clarify. I ran the same pattern Mario did against Penn State, the one that brought tears to my eyes and saved - even if for just that one night - everything I wanted Michigan's season to be. I caught the pass, just like Mario did. Me and my brother, for the second time.

I write about sports because somewhere inside me I remember exactly what things like that felt like. And they just felt so damn good I can’t stop looking for them. I don’t feel like I’m settling anymore – writing about sports instead of playing them. I just know to look for the feeling in different places now. I still get the flames on my arms; these days I tend to feel them when I’m walking through the rain.


Blogger Maize n Brew Dave said...

He coached your little league team too? It seems like everyone had that exact coach. Mountain of a man, yet barely tall enough to allow any illusion of atheticism in a past life. The brand new mercedes with the paint cans in the rear seat. More gold chains and bracelets than Zsa Zsa Gabor. Don't worry, he ruined my swing too.

Absolutely loved your aside on Delvin Rodriguez.

the prose. the timing. everything.

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your posts and I think to myself how great it would be if you got picked up somewhere, maybe blogging for a big sports syndicate, something like that. Something national and making it big once you got discovered.

Then I realize why that's a terrible idea: I don't want you to ever have to write about any team besides Michigan.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Kenny said...

Can't say it enough, great work.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog since you started back in October. I've checked the blog at least once per day since you wrote about the Penn State game. In fact, I saved those words to my hard drive and read them from time to time to hold me over until football season starts.

I echo Jeremy's sentiments. But I'm resigned to the fact that one day I'll be reading your cover story's in Sports Illustrated. I can only hope they're about Michigan.

4:15 PM  

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