brewers baseball and things


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a nine-inning moment

A sign hung down from the Bittman Facility entrance – ‘Everywhere is a racket.’ Bittmans was located in Loopsickle, Michigan, cold as a meat freezer in the winter, but lylocks, shmyties, and booterberries grew all spring and summer long. At times, it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement.  Bittman’s tenants came from all over and shared one thing in common – a loss of hope, a teetering into the endless realm of despair. Bittmans promised a way out.

There were no big buildings at the facility, no crowded streets, no dented coke cans or syringes lying about, only green grass, a river, weeping willow trees, Russian olive trees, maples, elms, all kinds of trees and as a result, breezes that sang as they rustled through leaves. But don’t be deceived; there were also muddy feet in the spring, death and decay, ugliness everywhere. There were creeping little critters, rodents running wild, and dirt roads filled with rolling tumbleweeds, a lot like the tenant’s minds which felt no spark, no need to carry on, no reason to live.

When they spotted the sign at the entrance – ‘everywhere is a racket,’ tenants assumed the implication was a tennis or badminton racket, another self-help guru trip, to inspire a volley, a back and forth, a seesaw, a playful cruise through this life is but a stream or a dream or however the merry rhyme goes.

But from the minute they stepped over the line and into the facility, they were told that ‘everywhere is a racket’ meant everywhere is a scam, “Even God,” said the founder and director of the facility, Mr. Jeremy Bittman, a third generation steel magnate who traded in his inheritance and bought this track of land outside Loopsickle, Michigan, in the wild, far from the paranoia of city life – the buildings with window eyes staring down on everyone, watching their every move, the stop and go traffic lights halting any flow of ‘life is good’ momentum, and that indecipherable hum of crowds gathering around cold statues and dirty plazas.

“But how is God a racket?” asked the tenants when they first heard this blasphemous refrain. None of them were religious having lost all trust in God for they were unhappy, desperate, distraught and many other words that began with the letter D. But ‘God a racket!’ They enjoyed a new born curiosity with this chastisement. They asked why over and over, but were never given an answer and as a result, their curiosity lingered and bloomed as they settled into their sleeping area. There were no private rooms, only an open space with bean bag beds or hammocks. They wondered about those too. Curiosity rained and reigned.

Bittman’s tenants were then given three activities- 1) To toil away in a shoe shop – to learn the ancient trade of shoe repair, 2) To read and discuss with the group a history of their choice, from the Etruscans to Egyptians to Inuit to whatever they wanted, and 3) to build a baseball diamond and play. They had no choice in the matter. They were required to participate in this trinity of activities or else, be escorted away from the facility. The three activities were designed in the spirit of crop rotation, to shift their minds and beings from one activity to another, from tasks with their hands, to using their minds, to spark their imaginations – to build a baseball diamond.

There was also a mess hall to chow down food three times a day. Chefs were instructed to always add spicy pepper Sriracha sauce to whatever they made, from scrambled eggs to sardines and potatoes, Sloppy Joe’s, macaroni and cheese, tuna sandwiches, bowls of rice, always with Sriracha.

And so they ate spicy fire food, fixed shoes, studied histories, and built baseball fields. They made the home run wall in three colors – center field black, right field blue, left field silver. The black and blue didn’t bother Jeremy Bittman. He knew it as the lingering effects of the tenant’s despair. Instead, he focused on the left field silver, that luster of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, the trio trinity of splendid left fielders stationed at Fenway Park, one after another.

The tenants built a backstop fence, erected a foul pole, and chalked the lines, scribbled out a batters box too. And when complete, they reflected on what they had created – the fence, wall, lines and so on and suddenly, their enthusiasm and industry dipped. It all felt like a prison, that fence and wall, those lines, all of it a prison. No matter what they touched, it always turned into a trap, a racket, as the sign at the entrance insisted, a sinister seduction this Bittman Facility, another obstacle keeping tenants from activating their full potential, that uncharted area in their minds where maybe some semblance of happiness might erupt and help them make it through another day. They’d been duped.

Most had never played baseball but they quickly learned with the help of Jeremy Bittman that the game featured positions and more positions, roles, a street corner democracy where each and everyone could sport their wares, from plaid Hawaiian shirts to shoes with holes in them. They could scream their truths and observation, whine and whisper or say nothing at all. They were struck with even more curiosity.

Each tenant quickly landed a role as if by some magnetic force. One fell into the pivot ways and short toss of a second sacker, another the hammock recline of the DH. There were speedy pinch runners and timely hitters. Those with dance in their gaits became pitchers contorting windups and friendly ones gravitated towards first base to chat up runners.

They cheered from the bench and when in the field, they stood on their toes, ready and alert, a long nine-inning moment, free from that empty feeling in their mind and stomach, a medicine without a pill, so potent that some swore off the notion, the sign hanging down that said ‘everywhere is a racket.’ Instead, they turned to the sky and all around and hummed.


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earl

The other day I was sitting in the hospital cafeteria, staring at a white wall when my eyes drifted towards a table on the other side of the room. There was a man with a bowl cut. He looked like Moe from the Three Stooges, only his hair was white, not black.

I convinced myself that it was Earl Weaver which made no sense because Earl passed away January 19, 2013 and anyway what the hell would he be doing in Montreal? There hasn’t been a baseball team here since forever and plus, the Expos were in the National League and Weaver’s Orioles were in the American League. Back then, the two leagues were separate species. No inter-league play. A real rivalry. I think even the umpires wore different colored suit jackets.

I was obviously suffering from Earl Weaver seven-year memorial delusions, but delusions aren’t all bad. The word memorial got me thinking about Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where Earl managed all his home games. I thought back to the last day of the 1982 season, at that very Memorial Stadium. The Brewers and Orioles were tied for first place. The Brewers walloped the Orioles by a ridiculous score. Yount hit two home runs and Don Sutton defeated Jim Palmer. The Brewers won the A.L. East. Earl said that was going to be his last game. Oriole fans gave him a long standing ovation. He did come out of retirement a few years later.

I would think everyone loved Earl except umpires. When asked, if Earl bothered him ( I forget the umpire’s name), he responded, “Do hemorrhoids?”

Anyway, I took another look at this Weaver looking man and remembered something Roger Angell had said about Earl, about him sitting in his underwear eating a chicken drumstick after a game, talking to reporters in the clubhouse real relaxed and friendly. This guy wasn’t in his underpants and he wasn’t eating a chicken drumstick. It wasn’t Earl but if it was, I would have mustered up some courage and gone over and struck up a conversation.

Yeh, Earl loved the three-run homer and didn’t care to much for bunting and stealing bases, but he managed real similar to Casey Stengel in that they both used all 25 players and liked to  platoon. Everyone had a role, a real democratic way. I would have loved to play for him.

And yeh, Earl got kicked out of a lot of games and baseball isn’t all about ejections, but it sure is entertaining and sure beats the perfection of instant replay. I much prefer scratchy records.


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mcdonalds, god, and baseball sin

I work at a Jewish hospital so all the food places are kosher, coffee shops too. I go to the same one every morning  at 9:30 AM. Why do they call coffee shops……..shops in the first place? No one is fixing shoes or manufacturing umbrellas there.

Anyway, the coffee there costs 1.80 which is more expensive than McDonalds, but what can I do? McDonalds isn’t kosher so there aren’t any golden arches where I work, but it doesn’t matter because the small coffee I order is pretty damn big for a small. I like the place too because I like the cashier, not in a romantic way. She’s just nice and pleasant and because if I’m short a few cents, she gives me the coffee anyway. She’s from the Philippines which reminds of the Phillies which reminds me of Greg Luzinski.

The other day I was scrounging around for my 1.80 when a Hasidic Jewish man approached. I knew he was Hasidic because of his weeping willow side curls, very beautiful. Could these curls catch on and become a fashion? Probably not, but I wouldn’t mind if they did. Boys and girls could dye them different colors and dance around and make a pinwheel effect. Adults could do the same.

Hasidic Judaism originated in 18th century Western Ukraine. Its founder the Baal Shem Tov or master of the good name, aimed to bring joy to Judaism, to sing and dance in the fields. There are many Hasidic groups or dynasties. They all descend from this Baal Shem Tov and all are named after the town where they originated so the Breslov Hasidic group, for example, originated in Bratslav, Ukraine. I’m not sure why they aren’t referred to as Bratslav Hasidim since they’re from Bratslav? Anyway, I’m not sure why former Brewers pitching coach Cal McLish has so many names either – Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish.

The Philippine lady worker at the coffee shop is like a one woman band. She collects money, dishes out pastries, and shoves bagels into a toaster and butters them. I asked her the other day, “Don’t you have a helper?”

“No, I don’t,” she answered, relieved that I understood her predicament. “I’m busy,” she said. “I’m always busy.”

“It’s good to be busy,” said the Hasidic man.

“But I’m alone,” she said.

“So you need help,” replied the Hasidic man.

I had a feeling I knew what he was insinuating, that she and we need god’s help or maybe I was suffering from Biblical delusions which would be strange because I can’t remember the last time I opened up a bible, probably years ago at some motel, the one inside the drawer of a table beside the bed.

I could have asked the Hasidic man if he was referring to god and who knows maybe that would jumpstart a new journey for me. I could get into god, read the bible, go to synagogue and learn how to speak to our great lord in my own words. I could complain about some asshole at the grocery store who bumped into me with one of those big shopping karts.

But I didn’t talk to him. Instead, I smiled, wished him a good day and did the same to the lady Philippine worker and then I thought about the Phillies again, worshipping Rawly Eastwick, Gary Mathews, Tug McGraw, Darrin Daulton, and Luzinski I went, committing one baseball idolatry after another……


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not Konstantly blue

Yesterday and the day before yesterday and today, I walked to work. I removed my boots, jacket, hat, gloves, and attached my work ID to my belt loop. I started the day and quickly committed the sin of not being in the now. I daydreamed of a new job, of caring for the elderly minus assisting them in the toilet. I would make their meals, accompany them on long walks and listen to their stories or better yet, we could be living in Hawaii and we could stroll to the local high school baseball diamond and watch kids play in the middle of January, uniforms and chatter and all of it.

I’m glad I had that Hawaiian daydream because after it faded, a baseball card appeared in my mind. It was Jim Konstanty. He was wearing a red Phillies hat and smart library glasses and all around him was sky baseball blue. This isn’t the first time the Konstanty card has popped into my mind. It’s always 1961 Topps and strangely, it says “Most Valuable Player – 1950” across the top and underneath it – “National League,” strange because it’s a 1961 card. I think I still have it in my collection. I probably got it in a mystery box at 92nd and Greenfield – Gonzaga Hall on Milwaukee’s west side. There were shows there about once every two months. That’s where I first smelled booze breath and witnessed these same adults fulfilling kid’s baseball card dreams.

But back at work, it was more than the Konstanty card that had my mind sizzling, more than the memory of holding a stack in my hand and shuffling one card after another, more than sorting them in piles by team or by numbers on the backside, more than not knowing the time, day or season, totally engrossed. It was the opportunity that had been awarded me, as an adult, at work, to wonder and know that at lunch, burning with curiosity, I’d research Konstanty and discover that he won the MVP as a reliever for the Phillies in that 1950 season, as a reliever!! and that would lead to the park the Phillies played in Shibe and other old parks and players I never knew followed by the first ever DH Blomberg and somehow a half hour later I’d be wondering about the Seattle Mariners winning 116 games in 2001, and on and on and suddenly I’d be part of a family, again, a family stretching Don Larson backwards, of him losing 21 games in 1954 and two years later tossing a World Series perfect game and if that isn’t changing water to wine, then call me Ron Kittle and this family stretches forward too, of the Brewers recently signing Josh Lindblom to a three-year contract. He spent the last two seasons pitching in Korea…..


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still work shines

I’ve changed the bulbs in the lamp beside my bed a number of times, but I haven’t changed the lamp in over 20 years.

I use the same Swiss army knife I got when i was 13. That was more than 36 years ago. I lost the toothpick and tweezers. The knives don’t slide open, but the can opener still works well.

If they didn’t demolish Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, or Dodger Stadium yet,
there must be something right about them.

 


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generations

Most people don’t talk to each other on public transportation, at least not in Montreal. I was on the subway the other day sneaking glances at all the scenery – a man with an earring in his nose, an old lady playing some colorful game on her phone, and a kid or not a kid, but a baby. It was reclining in a stroller looking like a king on a throne. I couldn’t identify the sex. But I knew I couldn’t  just stare. That gets kind of creepy. You have to smile or say, “Oh it’s so cute,” but if I said, “it” that might get construed as an insult. You never know these days so I simply smiled and that awarded me the opportunity to poke my head closer. It was definitely a boy. He was cuddled up in a full body snowsuit, moon boots dangling from the stroller. He looked perfectly comatose, serene, and peaceful and all that.

There was a plastic sheet rolled up to to the stroller top designed to keep the wind and cold and strangers like me out of the baby’s face. It hung over like the Old Tiger’s Stadium right field roof, the one Reggie hit the ball over in that all-star game. I immediately thought of the tarp that nearly swallowed Vince Coleman in I think the 1985 World Series? I wondered if the baby would become a pope, a plumber, a cashier at a supermarket, a messiah, or maybe a pitcher? Yeh, maybe a pitcher. When he’s 12, maybe he’ll learn how to throw a knuckle ball or maybe he’ll reject right handedness and become a lefty and learn the Mike Cuellar, Jamie Moyer craftiness. He’ll pitch little league, maybe high school and since he’s a lefty, maybe he’ll get drafted, but then one day, the invisible peak will be reached and all that potential will slide down the other side into a trash heap and fade away.

He’ll get a job and live a life and then many years later, he’ll have grey hair and be standing where I was, on the subway staring at a baby in a stroller or better yet, he’ll be at a high school baseball park and look over to his right and there will be a kid sitting on the wood bench bleachers in jeans (his mom or dad taught him about splinters) and the old man will wonder if this kid will one day become a pope, a plumber, a cashier at a grocery store, a messiah or a pitcher? Yeh a pitcher, to discover some new pitch that’s never been thrown, maybe a ‘sliver’ pitch that cuts to the right, then back to the left, and finally sinks out of the strike zone.


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along the 162

Miss Masquerade downed two shots of Bourbon and looked over at Love Triangle Lou. He was busy at the board, rolling Strat-O-Matic dice. There was pageantry in the colorful scarves hanging from the bar’s ceiling, but not for any holiday or dedication, only the regular season, day-after-day, serving the population their liquid relief.

It was the bottom of the 8th in strat-o land, Dontrelle Willis on the mound, a no-hitter in the making. Love Triangle Lou held the dice in his cupped hands and shook them, a ritual of many moons to inspire an OUT of any kind. Willis had already walked four and hit one batter in the shin.

The sound of those dice, of those plastic cubes bumping into each other like a whisky on the rocks, ice cubes clanking; that sound flipped the switch of the bartender’s mind. He knew he was part of something big. He moved closer and looked over Love Triangle’s shoulder. He didn’t believe in god, but he clenched his fist and stood still, focused each breath on Willis, to elevate the southpaw’s arm speed and control. This could be the first and only no-hitter in four years of strat-o play!

The bartender went by the name Slippery Sam. He motioned to Love Triangle, hand to mouth, a sign, a catcher to a pitcher, that it was OK to smoke and so he did and the smoke rose in swirls to the x-shaped ceiling fan and spread all around. A small crowd of drinkers began to pace for every batter, back and forth, their steps more like stomps across the shag carpet. Dust flew up and with it a memory hit Slippery Sam, of play-by-play on the AM dial. He offered Love Triangle the karaoke microphone and cleared a space on the rail. Love Triangle grabbed the microphone and stood up. He hadn’t been that high since a secondary school Spelling Bee stage and podium.

Then he crouched down to roll. The dice hit a few empty glasses and then came to a stop. The red dice was 4 meaning it was on the pitcher Willis’s card. The two green dice added up to 10. Love Triangle regained his upright position and matched the dice result with the card. But he didn’t reveal the outcome.

“Here we are in the bottom of the eight,” he announced. “Willis still on the mound, still hasn’t given up a hit. The Phillies Shane Victorino takes his practice swings and now steps to the plate. He takes the first pitch outside, ball one. He waves his bat a little quicker. His back foot digs in like an Olympic runner ready to burst. Here’s the pitch. He hits a slow roller to third, a swinging bunt. Miguel Cabrera steps onto the grass, runs toward the ball, scoops it up bare-handed, and throws to first.”

Drinkers approached the rail and stared at Love Triangle Lou.

“It’s gonna be a close play. Victorino can run. He’s changing gears. He’s now in full out sprint mode. He stretches out his front leg and steps on the sac. The first baseman does the same with his mitt. He stretches his glove hand and…and….and he is…..he is. It’s hard to tell. It’s a bang bang play and he is….SAFE. Oh no! He is safe and can you hear that collective exhale across the stadium as all that tension and excitement must be exiting but wait! What’s that?  People are standing, cheering for Willis. The D-train, the 2003 Rookie of the Year. He came oh so close.”

The bar patrons exhaled and cheered too. Drinks were had all around, on the house, thanks to Slippery Sam. They shared all the what ifs and almosts in their lives. They drank and danced well past bar time.