In 1995 and 1996, the Cleveland Indians may have been the best baseball team in the world. A fearsome crew of hitters strode the earth—at least the parts of the earth covered by American League ballparks—and names like Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez hit balls desperately hard, exceedingly far, and with alienating regularity. (As I buffed my memory of these teams with research, I realized I had forgotten Eddie Murray. My memory issues aside, contemplate for a moment the meaning of a lineup sufficiently Marianasian to hide a man responsible for 3,255 hits and 504 home runs.) As the aforementioned did the previously described, Kenny Lofton seemed always to be between bases—streaking, not stuck. He set the rookie record for stolen bases, led the league in them, set team records, and went around so savagely hitting baseballs and scoring runs and flying in center that it made sense to think of his relatively subtle skills as the team's most valuable year after year, instead of bowing to the inarguable and obvious narrow-earth-bestriding colossi mashing dingers. He was, with the rest of his team, visibly great, even if they never won it all.
In 1995 and 1996, I felt like I was always between bases—trudging/stuck, not streaking, walking from home to work or work to home, headphones on and a cheap cigarette burning. Days were light warehouse work, night were carrying amps at my friends' shows, retyping poems in the basement. I was not visibly great, and I didn't win it all.
2002. Greatness, that year, belonged solely to Barry Bonds. I was well out of the warehouse by then, and I wasn't carrying anybody's amps. I'd been to college, graduated even, and had been in my own bands, if still carrying amps. I was working in a beer bar, not writing any poetry (or any emails, or anything else) and watching a lot of baseball. It was on every day, the Seattle Mariners weren't far away, and they were even good. (Note: They weren't great; they didn't win it all.) My Kansas City Royals lost 100 games that year.
The bar was a dive, where the Pabst flowed can by dollar-can to a somewhat uneasy and dirt-common mix of town and gown. I'd spent most of my college nights there, fountaining smoke and pompous undergraduateness into the air, sluicing sour yellow beer into the void left behind. There were dark wood panels on all the walls, and there was an aquamarine bar with a brass plaque commemorating the stool of the bar's first customer, Ray "Icepick" Oster. All the light in the room was ambient, coming from a couple dozen neon beer lights and a pair of TVs.
By 2002, my pilgrimage had taken me to the Slough of Diploma. I wasn't going to the bar every night, because I was out of dough, and, besides, there was a lot of depressed sitting around, showerless and idle, to do. Three bartenders quit in two weeks, and, as a joke, I put in an application. For my sins, they hired me.
At the beer bar, we had a regular—an uber-regular, the kind of staple customer that defines a local bar. Friend of the owner, with a reputation for being a huge tipper (after a night of special treatment and fifteen beers, he might well leave a bartender a twenty; bartenders are not very good at math), he was also a mathematician. A real mathematician: More or less retired from the college down the street, he'd had gigs at the big computer company—you know the one: they make their own computers and some toys and some software—and a bunch of other places. He was a balls-to-the-wall heavy drinker, a chain smoker in those days before the ban, and, in the chatty echo chamber of a neighborhood bar only blocks from a college notable mainly for its capacity to fetishize itself, he was the locus of a shit-ton of dumb rumors, mostly obviously false: He was a millionaire (maybe); he was a swinger (kind of doubt it); he was a genius (maybe); he won all the time at video poker by being such a genius he could mentally hack the machines' patterns just by playing them (false), and so on.
I'd half-known him for a few years. I'd talked to him one summer night, and had gone off to the college library to read a book he'd collaborated on. When I tried to talk to him about it a week later, he blinked at me a couple times and went back to his omnipresent yellow pad and finger-drumming. Only after I was on the supply side of the bar was he particularly interested in talking—if never interested in listening. I learned from him a bit about information theory and the spam arms race, some things about pi and primes and a great deal about his commitment to the rebranded sociobiology movement, now called evolutionary psychology. I also had to endure his constant theorizing on the source of lesbianism (“They're too ugly to catch a man” is a more-than-fair and perfectly accurate summing-up of his stance). There were some long nights in that bar, in a state where on-duty bartenders are not allowed to drink.
That year of a lot of baseball games, he was a king-sized fan, a giant San Francisco Giants fan, though he'd generally compound his all-round awkwardness by speaking mainly in easy-to-retrieve-from-static-memory catchphrases, including a few that you never hear, only read in the lesser works of Bob Costas—"the great Barry Bonds" was always my favorite. He may also have said "vaunted" out loud. The catchphrases were, precisely, epithets, as in Homer: Unvarying bits of verbal material that a speaker could construct sentences around. Homer needed them to to fill out his dactylic hexameters; I think The Prof needed them to get utterances out at all after his eleventh Blue Boar. After Bonds, his best beloved Giant was Kenny Lofton, acquired in midseason and sure, The Prof was sure, to clinch a pennant with clutchiness. His epithet for Lofton: The Raptor.
The Prof was, for whatever reason, no fan of advanced statistics. He loathed Edgar Martinez, and in years to come would trumpet Bonds as "the best any of us will ever see" based purely on the basis of those much-reprehended counting statistics (home runs, batting average) and on the eye test: Look how many intentional walks he draws. He loved Lofton mostly for this kind of eye-test impression, and every time he'd show up in the on-deck circle the epithets would flow: "Kenny Lofton: The Raptor. If he gets on base..." Too drunk to make much of an argument, The Prof nevertheless did a hell of a job of pointing out Lofton's ability to scare the living shit out of pitchers, even entire teams.
We were there, The Prof, the bar, and I, for that 2002 Giants run to the World Series. We were there, drunk and infinitely impressed, when Lofton, in the National League Divisional Series, whacked two singles, then saw a reliever come in specifically to face him, was improbably not substituted for, and proceeded to crank another ball to the outfield for his third single of the night. Oh yeah: He batted in the winning run there. The Raptor, predatory as ever in his thirteenth season, his seventh trip to the postseason.
The Giants would go on to lose a huge lead in Game Six of the World Series, following it up with a Game Seven loss—not really a novelty for Kenny Lofton, who'd endured same in 1995—and The Raptor ended up chasing his ring on another team the next year—two other teams, in fact. Then another the year after that. Then another the year after that. Then another the year after that. Then another two the year after that. He never did get his ring.
I got out of the bar. The bar closed, then reopened under new management. I didn't make it to the closing party, and haven't visited the new version. The Prof... I don't know where the Prof is. But he, and Kenny Lofton from 2002, and Kenny Lofton from those years smeared around 1995, are still in my head, with the warehouse, and the bar, and the headphone cigarette walks and all the stupid things I heard and said and did, and everything else. When Lofton was around, he was always, every play, worth watching. The Raptor had a weird way of kind of focusing the game; when Lofton was there, he always just... seemed important. He always made memories. You can't say that about very many players.