August 5, 2010

Somehow I transformed from being a general lay about with artistic intentions and disdain for any sport, to having my joints permanently numbered by chips, swellings, pulls, irritations and sport related injuries. My wife grudgingly endures a painted chest of drawers filled with unmatched white socks in various conditions of dishevelment, another drawer filed with ace bandages, Neoprene and Velcro ankle, knee and back supports.  In the bottom drawer I have frayed tee shirts commemorating marathons, 10ks, 5ks, professional tennis matches, Cambridge University, the first Dodge Poetry Fest, the New Zealand All Blacks, two long sleeve Jingle Bell runs, a couple Cool Max hot weather shirts, perspiration wicking winter wear,  and favorite tattered sweat shirts and paint stained tee shirts for running on muddy days. There’s that gray Everlast tee missing a sleeve that used to be my father’s and a Jose Posada Yankee shirt I bought for a student who moved away. Another drawer has  two moth eaten tennis sweaters and unmatched warm up suit parts. Next to the chest are pairs of athletic shoes, new, good weather, rain shoes, shoes with collapsed midsoles but still not distressed enough to throw away, tennis, running and the pair I use for cleaning the roof. These aren’t ironic or iconic clothes, these are just my ‘I’m going to work out and I don’t really care how I look’ wardrobe. I have various gift clothes that seem too nice to sweat through. Of course I have overwashed sports hats, also souvenir hats, torn stocking caps and the lucky John Deer Gore-Tex lined bill cap I wore running eight marathons. I’m down to two tennis racquets in my bag (excepting the three wooden racquets I keep stored in the library closet in case tennis returns to its roots). In the medicine cabinet there’s a family size jar of Blue Gel Freezy Hot and enough generic aspirin and ibuprofen to help me limp down the stairs the mornings after. My contacts list has entries for two masseuses, a first rate sports orthopedist and a chiropractor physically large enough to crack my spine like a whip. My point in listing this catalog is I shouldn’t have any of this stuff. They’re play costumes and props. Even if I train three times as diligently I’ll always have the body of an amateur, the real bodies are born professional.

Kobe Bryant, Le Bron James and Alex Rodriguez account for $64 million worth of the United States’ high school diplomates average salary. That’s roughly 1,240,000 weeks work for an average worker with a high school diploma. To be fair that only comes to around 400,000 weeks of work (500,000 if you work less than 35 hours per week) for what one of these three gentlemen makes on average for fifty-two weeks. Last fiscal year Floyd Mayweather ‘s $40,000,000 led part-time US workers without a high school diploma. He balanced out the average figure on the pay stub most high school drop outs look at while they’re waiting in line at Pay Day Loan. I don’t mind people getting rich. It would be a good thought for all labor to be equitably rewarded, but…

This isn’t about inequalities of pay; it’s about inequalities and the fleeting, brilliant triumph of bodies.

I’ve been befriended by people who used to race motorcycles, run marathons, play satellite tennis, bicycle cross country, power lift, scuba dive, play rugby in leagues, ski the black diamonds, swim in open water triathlons, hustle pool, struggle to make the cut to keep from requalifying, and play AAA baseball. We all go as far as we can for as long as we can, then look back into a nostalgic glass…that’s the nature of an athlete’s life, even a mediocre athlete.

In high school I served my time in PE with a convict’s enthusiasm. I could barely do a push up. Throwing and catching were activities as impossible to me as walking a circus high wire. Throughout adolescence my athletic experiences were a disastrous series of embarrassments, ridicule and dull painful endurance in a failed attempt to please my family.

One sophomoric afternoon my PE class was threatened by Coach…anyone who couldn’t run ten laps in ten minutes would fail PE. My GPA has never been in any condition to absorb even a half credit noncredit. Fortunately I had had a fair amount of running away training from my neighborhood, and frankly ten laps on a cinder track isn’t that tough. Somewhere in that afternoon run a part of me loosened up or came together.  I didn’t turn into Forest Gump and discover a miraculous facility for running…but my hamstrings stretched enough to find myself running easily through a cold spring afternoon and experiencing the pleasure of my own body in motion. I’d like to link that physical epiphany with some immediate change in my life, but I can’t. It was one more awakening like many I was experiencing, love, music, driving, sexual rejection… thoughts began to appear in my brain, books contained ideas…there was a once out of control world calling me. I started to take life a bit more seriously, I read my assignments, got a decent SAT and took up playing tennis. Sports seemed as natural as growing a beard.

Freshman year my college had one of the worst athletic programs in its conference. To supplement the academic curriculum the university only had only a few NCAA sports, football, basketball, baseball and a mysterious absentee two man polo team.  I arrived the year mandatory ROTC was phased out. For undergraduates that meant physical training was an open gym, free tennis courts and no athletic dorm to be excluded from. On crisp autumn Fridays half of the football team got drunk and beat up anyone they could find in our dormitory; on crisp autumn Saturdays they lost football games. The basketball team was so frequently overmatched they employed a player whose on court purpose was to produce enough vicious flagrant fouls to encourage opponents to keep their victory margin under embarrassing. I never went to a baseball game; I’ve always hated baseball.

One of my roommates was Denny O’Toole. The year I met him he had signed as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. In 1969 he was contracted for the astronomical price of $13,000. He was regarded as a living god by many of the jocks on campus. Being a god has its moments, but it seemed lonely. Nearly every athlete on campus wanted to work out with Denny, or play him at some game to find out how good they really were. For Denny it was a dulling and annoying risk that always carried the threat of accidental injury. The boys just tried too hard. He couldn’t afford for an intramural field day to end in the emergency room.

I liked Denny; he was self possessed and smart. If my other roommate, Drew, and I weren’t acting too obnoxious, he’d  sometimes have dinner with us in the cafeteria. We played basketball a couple nights at the gym. He was a natural. He dropped in jump shots, dribbled easily with either hand and rebounded with deft authority. There was no player on our varsity that appeared as at ease on the basketball court as Denny (He had been offered basketball scholarships before accepting his pro contract.) He could put on his satin White Sox jacket and pick up any number of girls in bars. In the middle of February while the rest of us were frozen in Cincinnati, Denny would pack his bags and drive to Sarasota for training camp. We never asked why he came back to school for six weeks instead of staying at home…there are parts of athletes lives we just don’t enjoy imagining.

One semester Drew and I took  liberties with Spring Break and decided to visit Denny in Florida. It was the kind of trip that has become a standard script for comic coming of age films. After a few misadventures we were in Sarasota standing next to the White Sox pitching coach. Denny was unleashing some pro heat in practice. Drew and I argued over what we thought we heard him mumble. Good fastball, no control, or no fastball, good control.

Seasons passed, Denny drifted through summers of minor league ball and was called up to the major leagues as a reliever every August. Then he got traded to the Cleveland Indians. Then he played in the Lizard Leagues. When he was ready to stop playing, he quit and spent the summers driving his daughters to the Wisconsin Dells. It was an admirable athletic career in my opinion, except for one unfortunate judgment…one afternoon he invited me out to his house for lunch. After lunch he handed me a catcher’s mitt. I had never caught a hardball in my life.

We walked over to a shaded side yard with a pitcher’s mound and a pentagonal rubber plate set about ten feet in front of an embankment. We tossed a shot-put back and forth as he explained the game. My instructions were simple. I was going to catch. Fastball was one, curveball two, slider three and the change up four. If it gets away, or goes into the dirt don’t try to block it…let it go. That was the extent of my preparation…as if there could be preparation for what was about to happen.

Denny kicked at the pitching rubber, and then set his right foot with the ball hidden in his glove. He used a hip-kick delivery that brought him suddenly into complete animation. Left leg lifting, turning back and kicking forward as his arms cocked back and began his release over his shoulder. A yellowed baseball appeared frozen in Denny’s fingers at the top of his delivery for a long instant. It seemed I could almost make out the alignment of the seam threads. The ball was still, resting on a tripod of two fingers and the edge of his thumb. There was that calm time in his hand, then the terror started moving.

A just reasonably good pro boxer can hit you with a jab at 30 or so mph and have his glove back before the pain starts to sting your cheek. At 40mph it takes a hardball one full second to travel out of that calm hand and cross home plate. At 80mph it takes 0.5 seconds, and that won’t keep you in AAA ball. If you cut that time by 10/100ths of a second you’ve got 103mph fastball and that gives you a chance to be on bubble gum card.

We were going to pitch the 1971 World Series, Pittsburg vs. Baltimore. Denny had committed to memory the ‘book’ on every player on both teams. He would tell me who was a bat, what they could and couldn’t hit, and what they liked. I was allowed to call the pitches. He determined how accurate each pitch was, if it was a ball, strike or a hit. He showed me each of his four pitches.
The fast ball moved a little up or down as it drove straight at my navel. The curve ball immediately flew sideways towards the trees then swung back around towards my head and kept swinging down towards my ribs. The slider looked like the fastball until it suddenly began diving diagonally towards the inside of my right shin. The change up seemed so slow by comparison I didn’t care what it did.

His pitches traveled to me in only two dimensions there was no depth perception on my part. Each one started from the quiet place in his hand. Then they moved up, down, and sideways until they arrived as explosions at my squatted body a fraction of second later. As the imaginary innings played out and Denny tired, I remembered the pitching coach conundrum Good fastball, no control, or no fastball, good control. I tried to solve it with invisible men on base and the ghost of Roberto Clemente at the plate. Pitches twisted, dove, rose, and spun in the dirt, more than one found my shins and ankles. Wild pitches flew past my head. As the imagined batting orders returned in the later, critical innings, my desperate four fingered pleas for change-ups were shaken off in favor of painful fastballs and hard angled sliders. For about two hours I caught baseballs until my left hand was bruised purple. The Orioles won. I was exhausted, still somewhat terrified, but proud to have endured my singular experience catching, even if it was only practice pitches in the side yard of a barely professional athlete.

Denny could make a baseball perform in ways that perhaps less than two hundred and fifty human beings alive at that moment in time could. In that same moment, there were hundreds more people alive who could perform neurosurgery than could bring a 100mph slider to a major league batter. It wasn’t merely that Denny practiced or had good coaches. He had physical gifts, like Le Bron James or Alex Rodriguez. With genuine giftedness, whether music, art or sports, there’s no amount of practice and coaching that can develop it in the 99.8% of the rest of us. What gifted people have to do to perform at what level, or how much they get paid is extraneous. They exist.

They exist next to us as a mystery virtue, and not merely a modern one.

I went to Greece to run the Marathon. In the days before the race I took a bus to Delphi, the site of the famous oracle and the Pythian Games. 2,500 years ago athletes and poets met there to honor Apollo the god of beauty, speed and art, with their performance. I jogged a slow lap of gratitude on the grassy track at the stadium. Two mornings later I raced from the village of Marathon, around the burial mound of the heroes of the first Greco-Persian War (perhaps even the ashes of the legendary runner, Philipides) and on to Athens. Following the race I laid an olive bough in the Temple of Nike Athena. I don’t believe I’m an Olympian Polytheist, it’s not impossible…but I know where to find the roots of Western democracy. I had willingly put my body in some level of extremis to try to touch and honor human tradition by running in the footsteps of the classic age of Greece. I’ve visited the mountain running paths of the Tarahumara, the Circus Maximus, the Ball Courts of Monte Alban and the ball courts of Wimbledon. These visits, like learning to catch a hard ball, seem to me inexplicably apt acts of respect…of looking back to see what it is we do to show who we are…what we have aspired to be in the corpus of our world. In the real Darwinian competition sports are as extraneous as deities and idols…or as necessary. We nurse our cultural needs for the illusion of beautiful victory. Games have remained sacred, not because they distract us from our world, but because they provide a place where we can believe our illusions are possible…at least for a rare few of us.