Authors: Lucas Mann
The top of the sixth inning is Erasmo’s last, and he gets out of it with a series of ground balls. He leaves the mound with his eyes focused on the dirt. The game is tied at four, and if his teammates score in the bottom of the sixth, he’ll be in line for a win, pulling the club within a game of a wild-card play-off spot, but that doesn’t happen. He tries to be stoic because that is what he always tries to be, but his face hangs disappointed. A win would have helped his stat sheet, something for the Mariner higher-ups to notice. Instead, today has been a wasted day, almost as if it never happened except for the slow, accustomed ache running between his elbow and his shoulder. He trudges to the clubhouse to ice his arm. He passes Betty and Bill and Tim and Tammy and Joyce and Matt and Derek and Julie and Gary and Eileen and Cindy and Angie and Craig and they call to him.
As he drapes a jacket over himself with my face emblazoned on it, Betty yells to him, a burst, almost as if she hadn’t intended to say it.
“Do you like it here?” she asks him.
He stops trudging for a moment and turns to her. He forces his face into a smile. He nods his head and looks earnest.
“Oh,” he says. “Yeah. It’s nice.”
He doesn’t wait to see the satisfaction on her face, and I don’t know if he hears her as she responds, “Well, it’s not too big and it’s not too small.”
The game stays tied until the tenth inning, and I’m exhausted. Those fans who wander into ballparks just to drink and heckle are long gone. There are fewer than five hundred now. The weight of my skull is beginning to hurt, and the wood and hard plastic scrape at my collarbone. I let my head hang and then realize how absurdly melancholy that must look—not a normal person dejected, but a localized Disney character,
eight feet tall, with his hands in his pockets and his ever-smiling face tilted toward the ground in despair.
Erasmo is still icing his tired right arm at the elbow and at the shoulder, sulking and eating a granola bar.
“Jiménez,” BJ calls to him, but he doesn’t respond, because that’s not his last name. “Jiménez. Jiménez. Oh, shit, I mean Ramírez.”
Erasmo looks up and sees the trainer pointing at the clubhouse TV. A sportscaster is announcing that the best young pitcher in the world, Stephen Strasburg, who was guaranteed $7.5 million before he was even sent to the minors, could need elbow surgery. You never know with a pitcher’s arm, the sportscaster reminds the viewers. Things can just disintegrate. Erasmo, whose own signing bonus managed to clear $50,000—a number eaten into by taxes and his agent’s cut, which would have been 25 percent at a minimum, the remainder placed in a bank account shared with his entire family—leaves to stand by the left-field fence, just in time to see the winning run for his opponents cross the plate.
He likes to walk home alone along the river. It’s amazing, he’s told me, that there are no sounds. Maybe a buzzard overhead, or a car passing, or a train. Once the fans drive home, downtown is empty. There is a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s. There’s a barbershop, closed down since before Erasmo arrived here, with a couple of chairs left inside facing each other as though in conversation. There’s the pawnshop where he buys DVDs on his days off. There’s an abandoned karate studio. There’s a discount furniture center. And another. There’s a music store. And a Taco John’s that sells tacos in sacks of twenty. And a gas station where the attendant always says “See you soon” when you leave. And a bunch of windows that reveal dark, empty rooms, with white paint on the glass that used to say something and still almost does, but it’s just faded enough to be illegible.
Erasmo lives in the Lafayette, originally a hotel, then converted into the largest apartment building in a town that hasn’t built a new apartment building since 1976. He rides the elevator with a puckered woman who drinks from a two-liter bottle of Coke and seems to be vibrating.
Erasmo holds the door for her, and she raises her eyebrows. She doesn’t know that he’s a town hero. Nobody in this building does. He says that it’s as though when he leaves the stadium, people look through him, as if he were no longer who he just was. And then occasionally someone will come running up to him at the Walmart, pointing, squealing, and it’ll be nice for that moment.
He cooks for himself—half a stick of butter into a pan, then three eggs, then the tub of yellow rice he’s been saving in the fridge. He mixes it with a fork. His roommates haven’t come home yet, three Venezuelans, two infielders and another pitcher, who sleep in an even row with him on the floor of this twenty-by-ten-foot studio. Erasmo eats on his mattress because there’s no furniture. His stomach hurts because he still can’t get used to eating dinner at midnight. He tries to fall asleep to images of himself, his laptop propped open on his bare stomach, the electric warmth on his skin. He scrolls through pictures of his face in glorious strain, his arm in blurred movement, and it’s important to remind himself that others see him like this, too. That men with cameras search him out and he means something bigger than where he is now.
Betty tries to stay positive, but Bill gets frustrated sometimes. Tonight, he waves a hand at the field, at all the players.
“It’s like they don’t want to win,” he says. “Can you believe it, Louie? Playing the game like they don’t want to win.”
The Baseball Family rises. They touch each other on the shoulders and say, “Damnit, that was a tough one.” And then, “See you tomorrow.”
Betty collects the remainder of her candy, kisses her son Tim on the cheek, and ushers Bill out to the home they’ve lived in for forty years. She’ll stand on the porch tonight and look at what was the house next door and is now sticks and ash and a couple of pieces of badly singed furniture. She wonders how people can just let things burn. There was a whole life in there, pictures on mantels, bicycles, casserole recipes, things that had existed for so long, burned into nothing.
Bill will fall asleep first while Betty listens to the postgame report on the radio, saying the season isn’t over, not yet, no reason to lose faith. After a hundred and some-odd games, the LumberKings are still in the
running—a few more wins than losses, stuck in third place, a chance to make the play-offs, and just as good a chance not to.
I tiptoe when I take my first steps of the night, having shed Louie. As though somebody might notice him in my walk or my feet or the shape of my ass, and something will be ruined. My T-shirt sticks to my chest. Everything itches. Mosquitoes flock to my head, no impenetrable shell to protect me now.
I’m so small outside the wearable myth, and when I realize that I’m anonymous, I don’t like it. It’s gutting, the way things can inflate or shine or reverberate under the lights that look unstable so high up, like skinny children with big heads. Spot-lit when the whole surrounding area is dark.
Nobody knew it was me. That’s not true, I couldn’t resist and I told some folks, but for the most part I was, as every Louie has been, loved without a moment’s question, allowed to mean something. I want that meaning to be more concrete, after all these games, but all I can say for sure is that I feel it.
I think of Betty staring at ashes and how quickly things can be gone. How when a player leaves, somebody else is handed his number, and it’s as if he was never here, except for a picture that you might take with him and then ask him to sign. This season will be over soon, very soon if they don’t make the play-offs, and everybody who showed up every day to play or coach or cheer will cease to do so. Maybe they’ll start up again next year. I begin to drive away, humidity fogging my windshield, and then I stop at the tracks for a train. The stadium is behind me, still glowing, something from a book my father would have read to me a long time ago. In front of me, train cars glide by the same as they always do—faceless black ovals. Company names are printed on the sides of the cars. There are no windows. They are full of raw bulk that I will never see. They mirror one another as they pass, like a flipbook that doesn’t tell a story. I watch them, moving, moving, moving, finally gone.
T SOME POINT IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
, a game was first played in which people hit a ball with a stick. That is fact. Then things get fuzzy. My father took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame when I was a boy and stood with me while I stared up at the oil-portrait face of Abner Doubleday, the man called the creator of baseball, enshrined in Cooperstown, the place where the creator supposedly created. He was a perfectly American man, Doubleday, face worn with some sort of perseverance, mustache stiff and thick like firewood. He was a Civil War hero, a generously wealthy man, an avid believer in things like God and goodness. He was credited with the invention of baseball fifteen years after his death when a Colorado miner faked a memory, said that on a dirt patch in a little industrial river town he watched Doubleday draw the game’s parameters on the ground with a twig, said that they played it that same day, a moment of pure inspiration.
Nothing is ever so right, of course. Baseball was probably first played in some form by Irish immigrant boys, pegging each other in rank city alleys. And the game only became popular, truly American, when gamblers took to it, when there was profit to be made off the fastest and strongest boy in the neighborhood.
This isn’t my own well-investigated information, nor is it any revelation. Everybody who cares about the game knows the lie. I knew it when I was a little boy touching the statue of a false idol, but what I loved, even then, was that it didn’t matter. That everyone, it seemed, had recognized the importance of the story that had been made. So awe was still appropriate because it was made to be so.
We can go back, trace a line through all the people who made the game oversized.
Go back to Herbert Hoover: “Next to religion, baseball has a greater impact on our American way of life than any other institution.”
Go back further, to Teddy Roosevelt, who dubbed baseball one of the key sports for a “true and manly race.”
And even further, to Walt Whitman, certainly no straitlaced statesman: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game.”
But these are clipped soundbites. I’ve always preferred the hyperbole.
Albert Goodwill Spalding gave the game its best quotation: “I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.”
Me, I believe this shit. I do so sheepishly, winkingly, overeducated, often stoned, but still. There is no such thing as comfort in smugness.
I am not a baseball player. I was, or I liked to think that I was, but really I was a person who loved stories and loved to be praised. I was a person who liked to be read to, by my mother, sure, because she was most willing, but more by my father, maybe because it was an occasion, maybe because he sounded different when he read, a happier, more hopeful man. There are memories I have that I do not talk about. Prideful, sometimes giddy memories—watching games, winning games, being watched winning by my father, smiling, by my older brother, still alive. This isn’t about that, but it’s there. I think it always is. I’ve realized that I set all of my happiest memories on baseball fields, a fabricated but convenient organization. Yankee Stadium, way up in the bleachers, dizzy from the scope of things; the dirt field by my parents’ home; the wilted grass by the East River in New York City where my brother pitched me inside with his fastball, telling me that I was finally worthy when I didn’t complain about my hands stinging. All of them blending.
I played baseball in high school, was the best player on a bad team. I played baseball in college, a novelty for everyone in my family of bookish depressives, me especially. I wore my team sweatshirt around campus for a while, and I kept an ice pack wrapped around my extremities
as if I had survived some battle, and I limped when I did not have to. I liked that part more than the playing. I smoked a lot of pot and told my stoner friends about my baseball in ways that were not at all true, because really I was the worst one on a bad team and I was so quick to cry on the pitcher’s mound while my father looked at his feet in the bleachers, not wanting to meet my gaze or claim me.
I live in Iowa now, far from home in a university town an hour west of Clinton, an hour south of the
Field of Dreams
field, the two-century-old family farm cum national tourist attraction, where you can buy a personalized cap or a fifteen-dollar T-shirt reading, “If you build it, he will come.” In my first Iowa winter, I paced circles around my little apartment while my girlfriend rolled tight joints that she said would calm me. I put on those ridiculous boots that my father sent me in the mail to tell me that he still knew the things I needed, and I walked out into the snow while she screamed,
What the fuck?
into the puke-smelling hallway of the building that shook when trucks drove by. I walked through the snow until I felt the soak through my jeans and my hands hurt. I called home and said, “I’m in a field somewhere, I think. I hate this. I can’t, I can’t …” trailing off into a sigh.
It doesn’t sound significant enough to say,
Defective, stunted, overwhelmed—this is my own hyperbole. My nickname on my college baseball team was Mannchild, but I think that was just a pun and an observation of what a fat, lumbering young man with a scraggly beard looks like. It wasn’t meant to get at something deeper, though all of us on the team were stubborn children who had grown too strong and liked to prove so by breaking things.
The Yankees won the World Series a week after the first Iowa snow, and I called home. My father was weepy on the phone. “Your mother is laughing at me,” he said. “Maybe I’m crazy, but isn’t this kind of beautiful?”