My body, six feet tall and cartoonishly slim, resembles no known athlete’s body, which makes sense because it performs like no known athlete’s body.
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Major League Baseball opened its 2023 season today with a clock to govern the time between pitches, something that has not ever been used in baseball. Poets who were baseball fans were known to rhapsodize over the inner rhythms of an individual game and about baseball’s “timeless” qualities, but in recent years games took three-and-a-half hours to play, which is not at all timeless.
Today’s New York Yankees victory took two hours and thirty-three minutes to play, a full ninety minutes less than last year’s opening day performance. I think that the length of time it took to play a single game is a reason why it has been several years since I have watched a game from start to finish; three hours deep into almost anything I start to think about household chores I want to work on. Perhaps this season will see me watch a game again.
If you had told me when I was sixteen that I would live entire years without watching even an inning of a major league game, I probably would have asked you what had gone wrong in my life. I learned math, arithmetic, from the backs of baseball cards. I memorized famous players’ stats. I had a baseball card collection whose organization was maintained with an attentiveness that a librarian might envy. I wanted to be a baseball player, my lack of athletic skills be damned.
I could never hit the curve. Also, as if consistent physical incompetence was to be sole consistency that nature would bestow on me, I could not throw the curve, either.
The absence of any athletic ability from the start of my life was not a factor in any life decisions. And now, disabled as I am, almost every physical activity qualifies as athletic. (I walk a couple of miles each day because I can and ought to.) But I wanted to be a baseball player …
My body, six feet tall and cartoonishly slim, resembles no known athlete’s body, which makes sense because it performs like no known athlete’s body. Baseball became an early, total obsession for me, however: I watched games for more than the basics and learned how to keep score, and it also occupied my fantasy life for at least ten of my first eighteen years. In my fantasy life, I was a star major league pitcher. I also wore glasses for nearsighted vision, but even that did not steer my fantasy away from sports: several successful major league baseball players such as Reggie Jackson wore glasses back in the 1970s and ’80s.
A friend and I played unorganized sports in our family’s backyards, mostly baseball. Both of us were loners who had found one another, so our baseball games became “one-on-one baseball,” a pitcher and a batter and simple ground rules to decide whether a hit was a single, double, triple, home run, or out. These were ground rules that were as much rules about the ground: if the ball landed here, it was a single; if it landed there, a double, etc. He and I never disagreed. (He grew up to become a radio sportscaster, which I think he still is, and my first newspaper job was sports editor.)
I could not hit his curve, so he threw it approximately one hundred percent of the time, and he won almost every game. Out of an abundance of codependent sympathy and a desire for some sort of competition that might include actual competition, he would mix in some pitches with which I could connect so that I could get some hits.
And then I would take the mound. All of my pitches were off-speed because my pitching motion was a sequence of movements that did not appear to be related to each other and also did not look like a pitch was destined to emerge from my right hand at the conclusion. (In the movie in my mind, I was a right-handed version of Fernando Valenzuela.) My fastball had some natural motion to it—more than my curve had, sad to say—and usually resulted in foul balls.
But my curveball? Oh, my curve was awful, and by awful I mean not good at all. I’d read every baseball instructional book I could find in the city library and local bookstores, so I knew each grip for different pitches. We played so often that to this day, I can hold the fingers on my right (pitching) hand apart such that people will ask if I played baseball in school. I always say yes, because it is not untrue.
So I used the curveball grip that was depicted in all the instruction manuals, but all that the grip seemed to do for me was remove that natural motion from my basic pitch and flatten it. The more that I exaggerated my movements (à la Fernando!), the more like a ball set on a tee it must have appeared.
That same friend and I went to baseball card shows in the Hudson Valley, and two of my favorite celebrity encounters came at those.
One year, we saw Henry Aaron, where, for a fee, patrons could stand on line and have him autograph items. I did not have the money to pay a fee, as I was sixteen, so we stood and simply gawped at the hero from nearby.
He was scheduled to sign from noon till five o’clock, and at five o’clock, he stood, pulled on his camel overcoat, said a thank you and shook hands with some people who looked official, and started to walk out of the venue. Not three steps away from the table where he had sat and smiled his broad smile and signed baseball cards and photos for five hours, a dad and a kid walked up to him—and he signed autographs for them. For free. A couple other people approached, tentatively, and he signed things for them, too. For free.
He was off the clock after all, and what a man does with his own time is his own business. No one seemed to complain that they had paid for an autograph that others could now receive for free, probably because the inherent fairness of it all was evident to everyone. He signed a couple autographs, waved, and walked alone into the Mid-Hudson Valley winter night. Some homeruns don’t come in baseball games.
This is why whenever I see the name “Henry Aaron,” I feel like I’m a kid at his first baseball game for the first time all over again. Every adjective that you ever see about Henry Aaron—strength, poise, dignity, kindness, decency—they are all correct, and they were all evident in a brief two-minute encounter that I was privileged to witness many years ago.
Same with Joe DiMaggio. I am forever sixteen in these memories. Joe DiMaggio was the main attraction at a baseball card show in Albany, NY, one Saturday afternoon. We watched as he took a seat behind a card table on a stage in the school auditorium in Albany. He raised one hand as if in benediction at the auditorium just before he sat down; a line of autograph collectors assembled on the right side, at the three-step staircase that sits on each side of a school stage; each person had paid some eight dollars or so to bring a piece of paper (purchased there as well) up onto the stage, where they would have their few moments with the Yankee Clipper. Someone guarded the steps and allowed a couple patrons up at a time.
Those on the single-file line were to make their way across the stage and down the opposite side where the lucky purchasers of a shared moment with Joe DiMaggio would file back down onto the sales floor. It looked like a bizarre graduation: before an encounter with Joe DiMaggio in person and then diploma’ed for life. My friend and I, each of us too poor to afford the extra money for the autograph and moment, considered it luck enough to be in the same space as DiMaggio.
I am not an autograph collector, though I have owned and lost a few over the years. I feel privileged that I have this memory of Joe DiMaggio rather than a signed piece of paper, which I probably would have lost in my many moves and life-mistakes.
From the open floor, where the vendors had set up their tables of team yearbooks and media guides from past seasons and complete sets of baseball cards, an old man yelled up at the stage (he was maybe ten feet from DiMaggio). He had not left his winter coat in his car, unlike most everyone else, so he looked like he had wandered in, rather than paid five dollars to get in—baseball card shows, where you pay money for the privilege to spend more money. He looked like he had wandered in, a character from a novel by Albany’s own William Kennedy. “Hey Joe! Joe!”
Joe DiMaggio looked up. “Hi.” A little wary, but not worried-seeming. Quizzical. “Howareyou,” DiMaggio did not ask. It was a statement, not a question, and he looked back down to his autographing duties.
“Do you remember” so-and-so? the old man inquired. “He used to work at” a street corner somewhere in the Bronx.
DiMaggio looked up again, said “Suresure,” somehow in one syllable, and nodded his head in a way that communicated to all nearby that although he had no idea who the old man was or who ther man wanted DiMaggio to remember, he was not going to disrespect him. A nod, a “suresure,” and he looked back down at his autographing duties. The old man continued, told Joe that the other party was well, even now in old age. Message delivered, he wandered off, and I hope he was very happy to have spent a couple moments with the “Great DiMaggio,” as Hemingway’s old man thought of him. As I said, some homeruns don’t come in baseball games.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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