Summer is slowly creeping into the room, and I’m starting to wear tank tops and abandoning a blanket at night. I ran out of coffee and now I’m getting a headache. The cats are moving a little more slowly, seemingly without agenda, and sleeping more often as the sound of spring training baseball fills the afternoon air. The announcers are speaking to no one as I go about my daily tasks, and when I finally watch for a while they feign excitement for a team that exists for no other reason than for its owner to extort money from the fans, the league, and perhaps even the city they play in. I love this team but feel pandered to as they try to sell me a bowl of shit and tell me it’s chocolate ice cream with sprinkles on top. (What…no cherry?) There’s a sucker born every minute, and I suppose I’m the jive-ass MF’er P.T. Barnum was referring to when he uttered those words that are soundly more American than apple pie and a lobotomy–thrust into a blender that would be deemed irrelevant in mere minutes and dumped in a landfill.
I went for an afternoon walk and decided to stop by the modest, pleasantly aromatic (supposedly haunted) Catholic university near my home to watch a bit of baseball. The St. Edward’s Hilltoppers are a division 2 team, with a well-kept playing surface, a view of downtown Austin in RF, and a large awe-inspiring, red-topped, Gothic castle–simply called “Main Building” and built in 1888–that can be seen for miles around slightly left of the diamond.
There was purity on the field that day; an anachronistic system rooted in the previous century that had been missing as players chirped back and forth throughout. Talk of the soil. Distant were the absurd contracts, overpriced merchandise, and owners who had graduated to my drop-dead list, and I was re-learning that I didn’t need every moment to be a psychological revelation instead of understanding that simply dwelling leisurely in time is a luxury.
Distant was the soulless institution of MLB as I took nips of whiskey from a flask that I had bought from a man in what can only be described as “barely a gas station” in some stink-pit outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was a turquoise, sort of abstract eagle on the front of that magical flask, and I’m not sure if it was the booze, the heatstroke, or the hoodoo placed upon the pewter, but I sure as hell felt as free as that screwball eagle at that very moment.
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!!
Is hitting zero home runs in the big leagues like being a writer who was never published? Or is it about the experience? The tactile thrill of putting pen to paper and seeing jumbled thoughts form on the page in a cohesive unit without fan-fair, without a record of speech.
Done with love unrequited.
There is a collective, who? from the crowd and a lot of head-scratching. The pitcher sneers, why are you here? this refugee from the bush leagues. The player goes through automated motions before digging in, slicing dirt and skipping pebbles; stepping into the box without adulation. No one scurries from the beer line to watch your at-bat. Persona Non-Grata. No one writes about and examines your life and travels, quoting you endlessly. You are no Joe DiMaggio or Ernest Hemingway or any other black and white face on a postcard. 11 career base-hits. I’ve had more lovers than that. Every one categorized and resonated in my mind’s eye with a dying quail, a check-swing squib, a flare here and there, or a hotshot that juuuuust went foul. Our struggles happen concurrently with everyone else’s — and sometimes done with love unrequited.
Childhood often walks the fine-line between the blissful and boring, and Big League Chew was an integral part of the blissful “baseball experience” that my friends and I so desperately wanted to be part of as young boys. We would scan our stacks of baseball cards and see players like Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn with a not-so-subtle, chipmunk-like slab of tobacco stuck in their cheeks as they posed, bat skillfully wielded in the lazy, sun bleached spring training summer–and we wanted to emulate that with pink, shrouded shreds of sugar-coated goodness. We were hip to the insider culture that only the pros knew about; at least in our own minds.
My parents were insanely cheap; and this didn’t seem to be strange at all as most parents of the 80’s seemed to adhere to this doctrine. My friends and I decided that we would need to be enterprising, so our destiny was to knock on doors and sheepishly ask the neighborhood psychos if we could have the pleasure of raking their lawns for 5 dollars. The riches would be immediately spent a mere four blocks away at the appropriately named Happy Market for some Big League Chew and a couple of packs of baseball cards. The leftover dough would be used to rent a movie that was skillfully chosen in VHS form from the Movie Hut down the street for 1.99 a day, and if we were lucky had the name Schwarzenegger or Van Damme on the box. The solitary zit-faced teen wearing an Iron Maiden shirt at the counter would look up my mom’s rental information on the ancient IBM computer and oblige out of boredom or indifference.
I recently walked around the old neighborhood for the first time in over 20 years. The houses still looked the same, as if time had never happened. There’s where I used to wait for the bus. That’s where I got into a fight with Tim C. There’s where I used to shoot hoops for hours. That’s where a kid’s father told another kid to “fuck off” and ran over his skateboard.
It was a quiet neighborhood and I was hoping my younger self would walk out of my old house so I could tell him about all the wonderful adventures he would have in the future and warn him about all the disasterous mistakes to avoid. I would tell him to forget his anxieties concerning adulthood and to enjoy the simplicity, lack of corruption and absolute wonder of his life at that moment.
Carmen was destined to become an A’s fan from birth, born and raised in Oakland, the child of a 60’s era, black leather jacket clad Huey Newton revolutionary/Berkeley professor and a teenage beauty pageant queen and Cuban refugee. The professor met Zoe at a small community theatre in Palo Alto where his future wife was performing as “Bianca” in Othello. He loved her adaptation and asked her to dinner where they proceeded to eat oysters and wash them down with a dry Cabernet. The oysters must have worked as Carmen was thrust into the world soon thereafter, not even a year later.
The girl became an A’s fan at a young age and would hang out at the Coliseum often on weekends with her high school clique. They would sneak in alcoholic lubricant, snacks and a transistor radio while loitering in the bleachers on lazy Indian summers; sunbathing while listening to the Talking Heads and giving the bleacher creatures something to gawk at between innings. Her favorite player was first baseman Chris Carter because “he was this absolute monstrous, beautiful black man blessed with a pleasant expression on his face and an easy, almost lackadaisical ambiance.”
In the unfit roads of adolescence there are bound to be a few bumps on the way, and Carmen felt these at the hands of the Oakland police. “I had a malleable mind at the time and some friends had influenced me to steal clothing and such. I got busted stealing some door-knockers (earrings) that had my name in the middle. It was so obvious.” When she was busted a second time for stealing art books it was “time for a re-examination of the program.”
Hard work and diligence paid off in 2008 as Carmen graduated with a degree in economics from SF State. She now works as an editor at the San Francisco Weekly. “The Weekly is often given to smart-ass editorializing that seems more geared to getting a reaction than making a concrete point, but it’s fun.”
“I’ve learned that we can be one person’s saint, another person’s genius, and someone else’s imbecile; and this is exactly why I do whatever I feel like doing every day without even an inkling of what anyone else thinks about it.”
I don’t have the affection towards Jeff “Shark” Samardjiza that I do for other former Athletics–he simply wasn’t in a Oakland uniform long enough for me to care, netting only 5 wins for the Green and Gold. Besides, once you slip on the pajamas with San Francisco stitched on the chest all bets are off. Affection can burn away as quickly as a love affair in a cheap Tijuana hotel room after coitus, an early morning coke hangover and a head full of regrets. I slop mustard on my hotdog and wash it down seconds later with carbonated, gut-wrenching goodness.
This is game 2 of the NLDS.
Samardjiza, long and lanky with long flowing hair akin to a 1980’s Sunset Strip hair metal band, the archetype of a “tall drink of water,” sauntered with that loose and easy gait toward
the bump with mythic and ghostly dimensions whispering through the ballpark–1908— and this former Notre Dame football star was standing in the way of mental and historical catharsis for Cubs faithful. Their celestial recognizance hanging in the balance of a 5 ounce sphere with a Catholic boy twirling it; their fathers and grandfathers never getting to see what they are hoping to see in the near future: a homo-erotic dogpile on the mound (say that once again without innuendo) and a lifting of the gold trophy.
Their collective vision crystallized after 6 months and 2, 106 games. Babe Ruth and his “called shot” be damned.
Samardjiza’s line: 2 innings, 4 runs, 6 hits, 1K, 1 BB…a clunker, a stinker, a garbage pile. Ex Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee used to say that sex robbed you of your stamina: “If you let a woman drain away your life’s essence you’ll never be able to go nine.” Does this mean Samardjiza had spent too much time in a Tijuana whorehouse? or was it simply that he couldn’t getting his breaking stuff over?
Top 4th: Baseball giveth and baseball taketh away. Starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has to leave the game with forearm stiffness after an Angel Pagan (this is the best example of a dichotomy in the baseball universe. Both names butting heads against each other with the former in a perpetual battle for the souls of the denizens of earth and the latter practicing polytheism and prancing around the forest in their birthday suits.) line drive nails him. Travis Wood, the reliever, proceeds to hit a home run in the bottom half of the inning. Baseball giveth again. The rest of the game is filled with a menagerie of relievers shutting down the Giants dreadful lineup, shots of Bill Murray chuckling and partying with fellow fans, and Bob Costas struggling for a heart-felt metaphor. He even mentioned beloved (well, excepting Pete Rose) commissioner Bart Giamatti’s “elegant” poetry at one point.
Final: Cubs 5 Giants 2. Cubs bullpen saves the day. Cubs lead the series 2-0 and hoping to exact revenge for the 1989 NLCS. Bob Saget prays to Bumgarner.
In case you haven’t noticed lately, some girls are all about that “dad bod”. I hadn’t heard about this body type until my roommate mentioned it. She was attracted to guys she claimed had the beer belly. After observing the guys she found attractive, I came to understand this body type well and was able to identify it. The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, “I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink a lot of beer on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.” It’s not an overweight guy, but it isn’t one with washboard abs either.
Matt Stairs was a fan favorite in Oakland and made no apologies for his love for pounding beers and baseballs–the Canadian hit 122 home runs in 5 seasons with the Athletics. A veritable beer keg in motion; Stairs is best known as a pinch hitter, designated hitter, and corner outfielder, but he actually played every position except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop at some point. He also has the most pinch-hit home runs in MLB history. Edgar Allen Poe could have been speaking of Stairs when he wrote this poem in the late 19th century:
Filled with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts, queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away.
What care I how time advances;
I am drinking ale today.
I see him almost everyday hanging out in front of the taco stand. He is an old man, probably around 70 years old with a funky sort of style. Today he is wearing gold crushed velvet pants and a fluorescent orange cowboy hat. When I first saw him I thought he was homeless, but his wardrobe is much too vast for that to be true. He defies authority and that is a beautiful thing. “That Oakland ball-club has been kicking the Giants ass,” he said.
I was a little taken aback–I had never spoken to the man besides a “hey” or a slight nod of the head. I suppose he had seen me wearing the green and gold on numerous occasions. Apparently I wasn’t the only person that noticed small details.
“Sure has,” I said and gave him a smile.
Sure, the A’s still have a terrible record of 35-44; but we made the Giants look foolish in a 4 game series and I can take respite in that.
“Little things seem nothing, but they give peace, like those meadow flowers which individually seem odorless but all together perfume the air.”–Georges Bernanos
The man sits regally and casually; wearing old style European clothing. Perhaps I felt this way because I was sitting in a park that reminded me of Spain– buildings towering around us in order to block out the sunlight. A couple of hummingbirds zip by me; connected in a seemingly sexual position. What a strange sound. As my attention span carbon copies the urban wildlife I notice that the “European” man is staring at me. (This is also known as the “devils” work of double–sense deluding.) The man rises and quietly opens an aluminum walker. And it is a woman. She was simply waiting for her granddaughter in the outside smoking section of a train depot in the middle of Los Angeles.
I rub my eyes and grab a newspaper to pass the time; a rare and tragic event that I enjoy and makes me look like a moth-eaten antique. FRONT PAGE: More cosmetic culture. An American culture that cultivates an idea of a free destiny within a firmly imposed but imperceptible and uniform attitude. Most people are confused by this dilemma and just choose the easy way out: make money and fuck everyone else. Who am I to judge? I’ve done the same with impunity and thought I was better for it. We learn to sleep at night with no guilt. Sometimes that sense of peace and safety is all we have to hold on to. ENTERTAINMENT: Idiot hip-hop artists and their self-importance; a soon-to-be-dead genre because of its chichi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics, actors schlepping terrible movies that will be forgotten within weeks, the occasional mass-produced book review, artists trying to make money from David Bowie’s still fresh corpse etc. SPORTS: The A’s have acquired Khris Davis from the Milwaukee Brewers. Left fielder with some pop and a noodle arm. So– the only weakness is that we wont get a 7-5 tag-out during a dink base hit; and at least I am slightly reassured that Beane (or whoever the hell the new G.M. may be) is at least trying to put a competitive team on the field in 2016 and not tanking like many other teams……although everyone knows if they start slowly, the FOR SALE signs will quickly go up again. I fold the newspaper and lay it on the bench for future travelers. The thought fades as soon as it appears.
“Goddamn it, they put his dumb ass in there again… I’m going to bed!” my mother says as she jumps out of her La-Z-Boy and tosses the remote control at me.
“He might do it this time,” I say as the goon in question meticulously blows another tightly contested/hard-fought contest in the ninth. There is nothing worse in the baseball world than a closer who embodies a dumpster fire.
Mom by no means is a knowledgeable baseball fan, but she knows what she doesn’t like…and she didn’t like Brian Fuentes. I knew how she felt. It got to be frustrating sitting there for 3 hours and change just to see this big-eared, goatee’d goofball with a lame-duck delivery and an inflated contract desecrating your team’s chances of winning. It hurt even more to know that he was forsaken by the Angels, the terrible team from Orange County that famously sticks with terrible closers until the apocalypse freezes hell over. If that smug blockhead Mike Scioscia is fed up with a reliever than there is reason for panic.
I had been to the Oakland “Mausoleum” merely days before, proudly sporting my green cap with the gold, gothic “A” on the front. The night began with a few nips from a flask at the BART station and ended with fans staying after the game to verbally try to rip Fuentes a new asshole as he blew yet another save; becoming the physical incarnation of our dwindling hope as fans. I sat there stunned, quietly giving in to shikata ga nai: the Japanese habit of surrendering to fate. When the A’s finally released Fuentes (STILL paying that contract off by the way) my mother could only say with a dismissive wave, “Well, you can’t make chicken salad outta chicken shit.”