Steve was one of the very first (if not the first) individuals to post a comment on this blog, and we’ve been “internet friends” ever since. 10 long years later, we are both published and still banging away on our keyboards–what a strange, wild, wacky world. I recently contacted him to chat about his book, Dreaming .400: Tales of Baseball Redemption.
Let’s start at your formative years. Talk a bit about where you grew up, how you gravitated to the game of baseball, and who were your favorite players?
I grew up in Milwaukee, but to say that would be kind of a lie since I was raised in a suburb of Milwaukee – Whitefish Bay… people around town called it “white folks bay” for obvious reasons. There were no bars there either, but there was a city bus line…the number 15 took us down to Milwaukee’s east side and elsewhere, to eat at diners, slip flasks into laundry mats and drink at bars which was always a scary self-conscious venture, for me anyway. I don’t know what initially triggered my interest in baseball but my dad took a bunch of friends and me to a doubleheader at County Stadium against the Red Sox. I don’t remember who won. I think it was in 1977? I woulda been seven at the time. I also remember my dad bringing home a pack of cards in 1975, all those colored Crayola explosion borders. I remember one of the cards – Jim Brewer, probably because I knew the Brewers played in Milwaukee, and yet, here was this pitcher with Brewer for the last name and he played for the Dodgers? It was confusing. I was no Einstein.
My favorite player was and will always be Harold Baines. I first saw him on WFLD channel 32 Chicago in the early ’80s. I don’t know what it was about him…maybe because he was an outfielder and so was I…maybe because he batted left-handed and so did I or maybe because he just seemed so mellow and humble or maybe it was the way he lifted up his front foot when batting? I later got to meet him in Sarasota, Florida where the sox trained and where my grandpa lived. He was standing with an Amish family. I waited my turn. He didn’t talk too much to me, but he sort of smiled and signed the ball I handed him. I later learned that Baines was from St. Michaels, Maryland and that there are a lot of Amish there. That explained that. Anyway, the contrast of Baines in his uni and the Amish family in their unis stuck with me in a whole lot of democracy happening on the urban street corner sort of way.
I have a nice baseball card collection, nice as in large. When I was a kid, I was a sucker for the rookie cards, thinking I would make a money-killing future. I bought tons of Dwight Gooden rookies in 84 and then a few years later, John Kruk and Kal Daniels and Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin, McGwire, all from that wood border 87 Topps set. I did score a 1968 Nolan Ryan rookie at a card show for 10 bucks which I’ve since sold for 500. I wish I wouldn’t have. it’s the only card I’ve ever sold. I did it to send money to my kid’s mom. I should have talked my way into postponing alimony.
I also got a Johnny Bench rookie, the same year, 1968. I still have that one. I still collect too. I’d like to one day have every Brewers card ever made or at least every Topps Brewers card. Seems doable since the Brewers are not that old…51 years. So am I. I like knowing that I was born the same year the Brewers were. I haven’t been too loyal. I spent many years away from “The Crew,” but they always welcomed me back…a forgiving family.
I played Strat-o Matic baseball as a teenager and into my adult life. The awesome thing about our strat-o group (there were five of us) is that one of the players was Craig Counsell, former MLB player and current manager of the Brewers and another guy was Galen Polivka, bass player for The Hold Steady. It’s awesome because their dreams came true!!!….Craig became a big leaguer and Galen became a member of a rock and roll band. The Hold Steady just came out with a new album too so they’ve been together for a good stretch. Anyway, I’m happy for them both and a little jealous too, mostly because I hate my job. I work in a hospital, in the warehouse, delivering supplies all over the place. too heavy. bad for my back. I’m freaking 160 pounds and not strong, but there is that team dimension that’s kind of interesting like a dugout with all the ages and personalities, plus I don’t have a boss breathing down my neck so it does award me time to jot down notes for my blog posts and stories. I’m currently working on a second collection of short stories which is supposed to be out in September or October 2021 but these dates always change which is cool because deadlines suck. I like the extra time and freedom to further develop characters, clarify themes, and whatever else to make a story more compelling.
You have an interesting and unique writing style. Who were some writers that influenced you, and who are you reading at the moment?
I didn’t do much reading as a kid, only baseball books and one book about pro quarterbacks in the NFL. I knew all the quarterbacks in the early ’80s and weird, I still remember them…Jim Plunkett, Steve Grogan, brian sipe, and on and on I guess the shit from our early teen years stays stuck in our mind somewhere. I took a beat generation class at UW-Milwaukee in the early 1990s and that rocked my world, from narrow stretches to the wide open. The teacher – James Liddy was from Ireland and a poet, the kind of guy who looked under your hood and provoked, brought us closer to ourselves. He encouraged us to hang out at bars and really demonstrated how to live a happy, single life, a life of drink and friends. Kerouac is definitely an influence, maybe Huxley and Hesse too. I read a bunch of their books. I also liked Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. that’s probably an influence too since I write short stories with baseball references sprinkled about. And then there’s my fellow bloggers like you, Gary…I love your rants and creativity and excellent writing so somehow I’m sure you’ve influenced me too. I’m currently rereading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl…a book about a psychiatrist stuck in Auschwitz and other concentration camps and how he put to use psychology he had developed prior to the war. It’s called it logotherapy — and in summary, seems to say that if there is a meaning to our lives, we can endure any circumstances. The psychological terms are a bit boring and hard to grasp, but the narrative from his time in the camps is fascinating. I love the metaphor of prison life…I often feel like I’m a prisoner at work, even worse, since, at work, I have to deal with so many people and in prison, you get some time alone or maybe most of the time is alone or with the bunkmate or whatever. I tend to be a hermit which is kind of good since writing fiction is one of the main reasons I wake up in the morning and to do that requires time alone, lots of it….and getting down? depressed? writer’s block? those things happen but talking to my psychiatrist or an afternoon whisky helps. It’s a good thing I live in Canada. my doctor doesn’t cost me a penny. not to go on a tangent, but I think socialized medicine helps individuals from feeling estranged, knowing that a government cares a bit about them. the other book I’m reading is Journey To The End of the Night by Louis Ferdinand Celine. I’m only a few pages in but he strikes me as a badass, a hardcore cynic, a massive critic, and a great writer. I learned about him from an interview with Kerouac way back when. At work, on my lunch break, I read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. I like the way it flows and the low-life beautiful characters he creates or chronicles. I’m never sure if it’s autobiographical or fictional or maybe both? And the book I just finished was Adventures of Wim by Luke Rinehart. It took me a while to know what the freaking thing was about but when i did (it was a long book) I dug it. the concept reminded me of that Kafka book – The Castle…if I remember right…something about knocking on a door and hoping to get “in” when in fact, there is no ‘” in” with the trick being to keep knocking? That longing is the secret to some sort of happiness or a reason to wake up in the morning or afternoon…or ride around in a hearse…whatever you like.
I’ve read your excellent book Dreaming .400: Tales of Baseball Redemption, and I was wondering what your writing process is like, and when did you realize that you wanted to partake in the life of the scribe?
I wrote my first poem in that beat class I took back at UW-Milwaukee so I guess that’s when I thought about writing when I started to take it seriously or not seriously but having that ambition, that vain desire to be published. The poem went something like — “didn’t catch the train but beats blow fresh air my way… the Ferris wheel begins.” I remember Liddy, the teacher liking it and that made my day or my year or my life since I still remember him liking it. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, back and forth with three friends, in particular, Liddy too, so they probably influenced me as well. I’m not sure what my process is other than the story idea comes in a specific moment like a flash of light with a lead sentence, a good sentence, a provocative one…and that sentence is like a miner’s light that shines through the whole story. I don’t really have to try to stay on subject because that first sentence guides me subconsciously or if it doesn’t, I make changes where necessary. I very rarely sit down and write a story in one sitting. I work and rework sentences and like my theme to be somewhat invisible so the reader has to do some connecting dots and thinking on their own, but not too much… I don’t want the reader to be confused. I think my writing is simple and straight-forward, probably because I’ve become simple and straight-forward. I think I used to be more confusing because I felt confused. Now, more than anything, I’m pissed off. One other thing about my writing process…I often take long breaks from stories, to let characters and plots marinate awhile in my mind. But there’s a danger in that because if i neglect a character, he or she won’t speak to me, not literally. I don’t have hallucinations, but speak to me in the sense of giving me ideas of things for them to do, things so the reader can get a better understanding of who they are…same with plots…I have to focus on it, give it attention. then the miracle can happen, that breakthrough that links the first paragraph to the last one. And as far as length goes, I find that a 4-page story is sometimes too long and a 14-page story is too short. Reading helps my writing.
Do you have any Brewers predictions for 2021?
I didn’t watch many games last year, but the word was that second baseman Keston Hiura stunk up the place so what do the brewers do this off-season? they signed Kolten Wong and moved Hiura to first base… a brilliant move, not that 1b is so easy to play…in fact, all that footwork strikes me as very challenging, not quite “spinning nine plates at the same time,” but easier than picking grasses in left field. Having a middle infield of Wong and Arcia….gonna be fun to watch. i’ll say 90 wins and another trip to the playoffs or maybe I’m too optimistic, unlike my dad who is from Boston. He knows better, being a Red Sox fan all those years before BIG PAPI and Manny and Pedro strolled into Bean-Town. Kind of a laugh in the face of Yawkey Boston tradition, if my history is right since Boston was so late to integrate. Thanks for having me on the FRO!!