Late Life

Jose Fernandez, Yordano Ventura, and Tommy Hanson didn't have the luxury of a long time in baseball, but they made an impact all the same.
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I remember a conversation in the third grade with my best school friend. It was recess and we were talking about baseball. He was a Dodgers fan and a Fred McGriff home run from the previous night had lifted the Braves over a Los Angeles rival. He described the situation feeling uncertain until McGriff, “decided to hit a two run home run.” Both of us ended up laughing deliriously at that description. One of those moments kids get maniacal with laughter. It became a joke between us for months. McGriff came up to the plate and “decided” to hit a home run. There was something so liberating about the idea: Fred McGriff hit home runs because he felt like hitting home runs. I even remember seeing the highlight. It was a typical Crime Dog cape-job to dead centerfield. We both knew that McGriff had not simply decided to hit the home run, but it was something in his demeanor that suggested the possibility. Maybe it was his detachment from the results of his process. This McGriff we agreed upon: impervious to pressure, deciding to hit home runs when he felt the need. It was his world. The McGriff joke eventually branched into excessive use of the term "casually.” It became our word for years. Ballplayers would "casually decide" to hit home runs in the same way we would "casually decide" to do our homework, or act like clowns in gym class.

When I was seven in the summer of 1996, a teenage boy pulled these ashen brick bars, about the size of hero sandwiches, from the pockets of his baggy black pants and lobbed them onto a picnic table where I’d been getting to know a new friend named Blue. I’d met Blue behind the chain-link backstop at the park. The Good Humor Man was selling Super Mariano bars, named after the Yankees’ new star pitcher, and Spider-Man push-up pops.

I always had half myself in the world of imagination. The real world was where my passions could melt in my hand, but that didn’t stop me from devouring all the colors I could. Ballgames, videogames, and books—these were my return channels to the imagination, where the reasserting self could be forgotten. The reasserting self was the one who considered, Maybe this is life, after the game was over, on the traffic choked Grand Concourse with sweaty sunburnt skin stuck to the plastic backseat.

It strikes me strangely, considering how the mean teenager went about tossing his bars. He made like he was talking to one of his friends, even smiled, and then began flipping them toward us, though he reacted as if each had flown of their own volition, like birds from an open palm. “Oh, oh, oh shit,” he said laconically, while those hard bars smacked onto our table. I remember the last one landing flat and still right between Blue and me. It was so casual.

Blue and I simply went to play handball. He was calm, explaining that the mean teenager had issues with his older brother. It was the description of a nuisance. They may as well have been water balloons instead of bricks. I don’t remember how I acted the rest of that day, but I probably smiled and kept score in our little game.

My school friends and I weren’t sheltered so much as we were encouraged to have routines. It was good to play sports, to be somewhere at a specific time. It was good to have structure. “Keep them busy,” I often heard our parents say. They were agreeing with each other. I broke routine one afternoon to get a Spider-Man comic on the Boulevard and almost had my bicycle stolen. That kid was explaining how he only needed to go around the block, with a grin that almost wrapped around his nostrils. He was shirtless and muscular. I felt tiny and weak, but kept my hands wrapped tightly around the handlebars.

***

By 2009, I was twenty-two years old. My priorities were personal and not social. I was obsessed with becoming as opposed to being. There were things that needed to happen. If only someone else believed. It consumed me. Trying to break into show business. The movies. At a new restaurant with no nationality I was drinking and watching baseball. I was not capable of knowing what my effort had been for, the same way a character’s incredulity can feel like a contingency of plot. I only felt a maniacal energy inside, impervious to articulation and pushing against the reasserting self. Of course the world was fair and if someone worked hard enough they could be anything. The best prospects move from Single A to The Show.

Tommy Hanson was pitching against the Yankees. It was the fourth start of his rookie year. His glove hand shot from his chest during his pitching delivery while his throwing arm rocked straight back. He formed this momentary T-shape before firing toward home plate. It looked unique, and in the moment before he released the ball, he seemed to embody a gathering force, a great wind coming to blow the hitters down.

In my recollection he pitched a complete game shutout. Upon researching, I discovered he only threw five and a third. He was not dominant. He walked five and struck-out four, though the Braves did blank the Yankees that night. But memory can be strange. I had this image of Tommy Hanson striking out the last hitter in this nonexistent complete-game shutout with a sharp curveball in the dirt. I am in the image too: Staring up at the television with my elbows on the slab watching him exchange congratulatory handshakes with his teammates. Whenever I would hear about Hanson in the next few years, I’d immediately recall him concluding that shutout in my imagination.

Hanson opposed Chien-Ming Wang on that particular night. He was ascendant while Wang, a surprising Cy Young runner-up in ’06, had become a liability; a fluke injury on the bases in the previous season triggered a succession of maladies that culminated in shoulder surgery. Success is fragile for pitchers, a difference in inches between the edge black and middle of the plate, one or two miles per hour of velocity delineating late life from flat spin. It was only five years later when Hanson, struggling himself with shoulder problems, pitched his last Major League game with the Angels.

***

It is 2013 and I am driving home from my favorite local park, the greenest spot in Queens that nobody knows about. My pitbull is in the backseat and I am listening to the radio while she sniffs out the window. The jolt of a new season already slackens under April gray, its turgid, cold-weather baseball. The Mets postgame is on and they’re interviewing a neophyte pitcher after his successful debut. I know his name is Jose Fernandez. I thought it was too quick for his baptism. The Marlins were being reckless. All I knew was his name, the praise for his “wipeout slider.” Wipeout slider.

I listened to the young pitcher describing his anticipation about digging into scouting reports for his next outing. He just introduced himself by throwing eight strikeouts against a Major League lineup and didn’t betray a trace of the giddiness. He had done exactly what he was supposed to do. Except what he was supposed to do could, and would, be even better in the future. Who was this guy? His twenty years had not been my twenty years. I had been wrong. Fernandez wasn’t just ready for the show. He was the show.

I made it back home and watched highlights. Fernandez jogs off the mound and hops over the foul line after retiring David Wright on a fly ball to right field. He drops a piece of backdoor nastiness on Ike Davis for a strikeout looking. I notice more today. The way his head is almost perfectly still throughout the entirety of his windup. The way his arm recoils after releasing the ball, as if reverberating. A couple years later he came back from Tommy John and dominated like it had been a mild case of carpal tunnel.

***

In 2014 I am watching Game Six of the World Series and hoping for a Game Seven. It had been a strange season from my vantage point. The brutish power hitter casually slamming home runs seemed to be disappearing. The defending champion Red Sox misplaced their bats after the parade. The Green Monster had never been dented less in my lifetime. Left-handed power hitters couldn’t counter shifting infield defenses and sliders being thrown underneath their hands toward their back foot. They flailed at a similar mirage, the hittable pitches of a bygone time. A fastball without cut. A slider meant for the backdoor spinning onto the front. Even when they connected solidly, an increasingly rare occurrence, the second-baseman positioned in shallow right field could easily throw them out. It suddenly seemed like a harder game to play, harder to watch. On Baseball Think Factory the vanished offensive age was being referred to as “silly ball.” Silly ball had been the only baseball I knew. It was a portly reliever with a high-eighties sinker hoping for a line drive to find a glove in the middle innings. It was contradictory, simultaneously tainted by performance enhancing drugs and a lack of league-wide competition, while also unforgettable for record-setting team and individual performances. By October ’14, the great hope of the previous generation, Alex Rodriguez, was finishing a yearlong suspension for performance enhancing drug usage and impeding the league’s investigation into a steroid depot masquerading as an anti-aging clinic. The specificity of these events feels bizarre in typing, but at the time, this was standard as a fungible left-handed reliever appearing on the transaction wire. With the Yankees in the doldrums, and an increased focus on my artistic activities, my investment wavered. I wanted that Game Seven, but I got what I really needed in Game Six.

The Royals put up a goddamn ten spot. Their fans were going crazy. Billy Butler slid across home plate and it was like he could’ve been carrying a popped bottle of champagne. The Giants had similarly exploded in Game Four, but there was something about the Royals’ outburst, all that moving blue and underdog zeal, that reminded me baseball was still baseball. There was Yordano Ventura too. He kicked out his leg after stabbing comebacker as if the entire Giants roster were gnarled gum under his cleat.

Ventura had been compared to Pedro. Usually lunacy. But didn’t his change-up seem dangle on an invisible string when it was working best? Didn’t his two-seam fastball sometimes dart with the fluidity of a drone in open airspace? Isn’t anything attainable when a twenty-three year old puts up a 123 ERA+ in a full, 183-inning season?

He threw harder than seemed possible given his slenderness. But that initial impression changed because Ventura was convincing. It was convincing the way his sturdy lower-body complimented his fluid upper-body, and how he could kick that landing leg like twirling an anchor. It was convincing the way his arm sometimes drooped low before firing straight over the top early twentieth century style, where that cliché reaching down for something extra must have been born from observation. Like other diminutive Major League pitching contemporaries, one had the sense that his body was generating his fastball velocity, opposed to some nebulous gift of nature. In this way, he was a foil for McGriff’s casual detachment. Without one we could not know the other. The straining nature of his talent seemed to be reflected even in the way broadcasters said his name: Ventura. Because when the home team was facing Ventura, they would be opposing every determined molecule of his being. A confrontation.

A year later and the demise of offense had been stayed. The correction came in the form of the league-wide home run rate, which elevated to Silly Ball proportion, except checked by the similarly increased strikeout rate. With many feeling that America had never recovered from the ’08 recession, Major League at-bats were increasingly becoming a home run or nothing.

The Royals were back in the World Series and basically the same. But they were facing the Mets. And that was different. The Mets had tremendous young pitching coalescing. They pulled a move for Cespedes and could not lose. My magnanimity toward friends who were Mets fans, like congratulatory text messages (Murphy!!!111!1) and well-wishing Instagram posts (can never go wrong with that October ‘86 Strawberry Sports Illustrated cover), was a front. I wanted the Mets to fail in the playoffs. But they played better than the Dodgers and crushed the Cubs. They deserved it, much as it rankled me.

I’m fully jealous by the time the Series rolls around. The Yankees had a surprisingly decent season but the future felt tenuous. The Mets were better. Sandy Alderson’s 1980s Oakland A’s vibe actually paid. I saw a picture of him overseeing an empty Wrigley Field after the Mets won the Pennant. He looked like a damn oracle. Baseball had not changed as significantly as ’14 seemed to suggest. But baseball in New York had transformed.

Of course I’m rooting for the Royals, though I live about a seven-minute drive from Citi Field. My memories associated with the Mets are basically positive. Running into childhood girlfriends within Shea’s tomblike concourses. Seeing one of the greatest regular season games of all time between the Mets and Yankees on July 10th, 1999. They slugged a million home runs. Mike Piazza hit one off the picnic tent. I watched from the last row of the ballpark above third base while Hell’s Angels bikers hugged hard, their bandanas sagging.

I had been harboring a deeper appreciation for the history of my local team. I ruminated over Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, even Gregg Jeffries. (Why didn’t they ever try him at first base exclusively?) And the Mets had been down for a long time. Recently there had been losing Reyes, trading Beltran, their ownership caught in a pyramid scheme.

I was even a little annoyed by the Royals’ persistence. A flame-throwing bullpen, foolproof defense, and that contact driven offense supported by opportunistic base running. They were so thoroughly modern. Aside from that offense, which was like an ironical touch of anachronism. I was still uneasy heading into Game Three, even though they had the Mets down two. But it could easily turn. I did not trust Yordano Ventura.

He was opposing Noah Syndergaard, a new, blonde-headed hurler resembling a Nordic comic book demigod. Syndergaard was playing a similar role to Ventura from the previous Series: ascendant. And in only a year, Ventura’s mystique had diminished. He had been above average for the Royals in 2015, contributed to their success by every measure, a repeat pennant winner and soon to be champion. But he seemed a disappointment relative to the possibilities projected by that Game Six, ejected from his outings for nailing hitters with his pitches instead of simply getting them out. He was on the wrong side of the thin line between competition and an outright fight. The line seems movably vague, only clarified in hindsight after the benches have cleared and bullpens emptied.

In Game Three of the 2015 World Series, Ventura threw three and a third. He allowed five runs. He gave up a home run to David Wright. Even I felt good for the Mets stalwart. But I quickly realized the momentum had shifted. We were watching in Jersey. The place was quieter than expected, given the Mets were in the World Series. “Two pitch pitcher,” I kept repeating, like a derisive scout, my voice was too loud, the energy in the room too low. And the game through the screen was far from me, up near the ceiling. Ventura should be better. That is what I was certain about. Syndergaard was applauded in many baseball precincts for throwing at Alcides Escobar’s head with the first pitch of the game. It was perceived as a worthwhile attempt to change momentum. Ventura did not retaliate.

***

The day after I had heard about the death of Jose Fernandez I was sitting in gridlock traffic preceding the entrance onto the Jackie Robinson Parkway. The sun was setting over the vacant horizon beside the highway, light seeping through my windshield, my mind swimming in a sea of my own doubt and election angst. When I was younger I thought existential obsession was a genuine burden. In hindsight, it was a luxury. I hadn’t yet sat in traffic not wanting to go to the place I knew I was headed.

Jose Fernandez’s reality was nothing like mine. He was a stranger I watched on a screen. There was no rational reason for me to feel distraught. To imagine he was in the passenger seat beside me, listening to news reports about his own death.

I tried putting things in perspective for myself. Why should I feel more sorrow over Fernandez than his friends who also died that night? But this counter maneuver didn’t feel authentic. It felt like courting numbness. I didn’t know Fernandez as a person but I knew him as a player. It was the same for Ventura and Hanson, memories of strangers moving their bodies while playing a game. Objectively, it probably amounts to ice cream melting on the concrete. Subjectively, it could be enough to get me to the next day, and the one after that.


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