Cardboard Gods: The Other Day

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The other day, I came to. I looked around, blinking. I was in a supermarket. This kind of thing is happening more. How did I get here? Where have I been? I used to assume my life was an unbroken chronological line through time, as if a baseball card with my likeness could list every one of my seasons and where I was and how I did. It’s possible this line was never more than a powerful fiction, and even if it ever did exist it doesn’t anymore. Moments flash in and out, past, present, jumbled, strewn. Everything is the other day. It may have gone this way anyway, but the arrival a few months ago of my son accelerated the scrambling of the back of my card. I make lists now to try to keep my shit together. This is how I came to in the supermarket. I was reaching into the pocket of my windbreaker for a list to see why I had ended up in the supermarket. I pulled out a toy, a little jingly giraffe. I checked the other pocket and pulled out a baseball card.


When I was a kid I believed, above all, in a line through time, along which losing could change to winning. The idea of winning, winning it all, was distant, millennial, all-encompassing, all-powerful. Just thinking about it was enough to bring tears of joy. The team I loved came tantalizingly close to winning, year after year, but in the end always lost, undone by the limited abilities of the pitching staff. I spent a lot of time staring at the cards of the superstar sluggers on the team I loved—Yaz, Rice, Fisk—but my waiting and hoping for change centered not on the cards but on a perusal of names of pitchers next to small black-and-white pictures in the back of the team yearbook, the names of those not yet arrived, not yet failed. The prospects. I was drawn to those names. I studied them hoping to find the thing lacking, the True Ace. Things were one way, but I wanted to believe things could change.


The other day, a coworker stopped by my cubicle to show me a stack of 1980s commons he’d found for next to nothing at a tag sale. He leaned on the corner of the pasteboard entryway to my cubicle as I flipped through the stack, the two of us mocking the mulleted, the bespectacled, the hapless, the fat. I don’t remember how the moment ended. All but one of the cards remains on my desk, cluttering up my jumble of project schedules and calendars and daily to-do lists. I try to keep myself fastened to a line through time. I lose that grip. I lose beginnings and endings. I come to in supermarkets, one hand holding a toy, the other holding Win Remmerswaal.


Win Remmerswaal was the most memorable of the young pitchers who existed solely as names in the back of the team yearbooks I read as a child. I never saw him pitch and don’t remember noticing him registering in a box score. He appeared in only 22 major league games. But I do remember the name. The first name could not be simpler, a distillation of everything life was supposed to be aiming toward, clean and clear as an ideal: Win. The second name meandered, complex, unpronounceable but impossible to resist trying to pronounce; it beckoned, a magic spell if said correctly, everything about it a tangle of knowable and unknowable, remembering and swaying and wailing and All, the opposite of an ideal, the dream-drunk wooze of real: Remmerswaal. Who was he? Where was he? When would he arrive to bring change?


The other day, I was watching TV for a few minutes. I used to watch TV for hours, cooking my many daily anxieties to a jittery crisp, but then the baby came. There’s always something to do now, up until a few minutes before nightly, ragged unconsciousness sets in, and in those few minutes I generally watch TV for old time’s sake. An ad for a casino came on. The gist was that for some, second place was okay, but for this casino only first place was acceptable. I didn’t want to waste my few minutes of TV watching a commercial, so I flipped around a little. There was a game show featuring people with weight problems trying to defeat other people with weight problems. I kept flipping. There was another game show featuring women in evening gowns trying to defeat other women in evening gowns. I went back to the first channel, but the casino ad was still wrapping up, hammering home the point that second place is no place at all. Images of glamorous people floating toward slot machines and gaming tables scrolled. I’ve been to a few casinos over the course of my life—they are devoid of glamour, cathedrals of loss. But they’re crowded night and day. Everyone believes flaws and limitations can be shed, change can occur. You will be lifted up out of yourself to some idealized version of you, free of your pocked humanity. Everyone wants to win.


The back of Win Remmerswaal’s 1981 card shows his stats in 22 games, the entirety of the pitcher’s brief major league career, along with all but one last gasp of his minor league career. The litany of names down the left column of his table of stats lends apt accompaniment to the dim, featureless moment on the front. Winter Haven, Winter Haven, Bristol, Bristol, Pawtucket, Pawtucket, Pawtucket. Red Sox. Pawtucket. Red Sox. And so here he is, representing the last line in the chant of his faltering ascension, Giacometti thin, a presence in the big leagues but only for a moment. Soon he’ll dissolve back into the blur.


The other day, I sat my son down on a Fenway Park bedspread on the floor and handed him some toys. He was at that moment in a phase of notable stability, able to sit up on his own but not yet able to crawl. After a few moments I edged away to check one of my baseball books for Win Remmerswaal stories. There wasn’t much about him in the big book I pulled from the shelf, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, so I started leafing through the book aimlessly, or maybe you could say playfully, no real goal in mind, drifting, curious. My son, drawn to the sound of flipping pages, pitched forward into his stomach. The encyclopedia was on the floor between us. He began writhing and wrenching his little body in such a way that he moved crookedly, haltingly forward. He’d never done this before. I pulled the book a little farther away. He kept moving toward it. I edged away and away until I’d made it to the other side of the room. He kept coming, wanting to grab and tear at the pages of my book about baseball, something so relentless in his efforts that when I told my wife about it we ended up talking about the latter moments of The Terminator, when the android played up to that point by Arnold Schwarzenegger has been stripped to nothing but metal and crawling, unceasing will.


Win Remmerswaal had a lot of talent. “Remmersmell, or whatever his name is,” said Reggie Jackson in 1980, “has the best arm of anyone on that staff.” He also had a lot of will. Before him, no European-raised player had ever made it to the major leagues. To get to the major leaguers from anywhere, you need talent and will, a truism no truer than when that anywhere is, in major league baseball terms, a relative nowhere. What Win Remmerswaal had in addition to talent and will was an uncommon connection to the thing that precedes talent and will. He played. In the minor league stop where he lasted the longest, Pawtucket, he became known and loved for his offbeat behavior and learned curiosities and wanderings and absences. He wanted to win and not lose, but he also wrote “win” on one shoe and “lose” on the other and, according to teammate John Tudor, quoted in an excellent biography of Remmerswaal on the SABR bio site, “he’d hop off on whichever foot happened that day.” Remmerswaal wanted to win and not lose, but during one road trip, his team changed planes in Washington, D.C., and he disappeared. He was gone for several days. On his reappearance he gave team owner Ben Mondor a box of cigars and explained, “I realized that I was in the nation’s capital, and that I may never see it again. So I decided to stay for a few days and look around.” He wanted to win and not lose but while his teammates attempted to narrow their focus only to winning and not losing and maybe some downtime painkilling swigs of beer or religion, Remmerswaal read Sartre, who once opined that “the genuine poet … is certain of the total defeat of the human enterprise and arranges to fail in his own life in order to bear witness, by his individual defeat, to human defeat in general.”


The other day, I gave up trying to write about Win Remmerswaal. I had been at it for some time, failing. The dour, fearful strain in my voice, the part of me that when I write is like a mediocre guitar player (which, as it happens, I am) playing the same tired blues lick over and over, unable to break through to some new way of feeling, is tempted to present his story as evidence that life only dissolves. He never hooked on with any permanence in the majors, never completely engaged the talent he was blessed with, blithely squandered his chances, meandered onward, out of the game. Several long, hard years followed, leading directly or indirectly to him suffering a debilitating stroke and falling into a coma in 1997. Wanting to know more about what happened next to Win Remmerswaal, I right-clicked the “translate to English” option on a feature on him at a Dutch website:

When, after a few weeks awoke, his brains and nervous system so badly damaged that it for the rest of his life in a wheelchair is designated to be fed and limited him to communicate falls.


My son now moves toward what he wants. Words will follow. He doesn’t know any yet. He’ll learn the word win. It’s a word that signifies a coming together. I’ll try to teach him the opposite of that word too, which is not lose but remmerswaal. That word, if it were a word, would signify entropic unraveling. It’s a middle-aged man blinking to awareness in the aisles of a supermarket, a toy in one hand, a baseball card in the other. It’s the spiral of stars in the sky. It’s a middle-aged man surrendering his grip on an unbroken line through the years to hold something better. It’s you, my boy; it’s love. And it’s Remmerswaal himself, in a nursing home undone, but who just the other day was in the big leagues. Just the other day he was coming to a set position and looking for his sign. Just the other day, close enough to touch, to study like a list, he begins.

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