Arnie Waters would have probably forked over an arm or leg, maybe even an eye for one more line of cocaine, but he wasn’t always like that. He was kind of quiet in high school, a cross country runner and a huge baseball fan who turned me onto OB%.
He had three posters in his bedroom; Darrel Porter, George Brett, and Cheryl Tiggs. There were piles of baseball cards on the floor and every Bill James baseball abstract back to 1977. A pair of running shoes. He slept on a water bed.
I remember the night Arnie disappeared for the first time. Our pre-drafted strato cards had already arrived from Glen Head, New York and we were still punch drunk as we were every year; playing on average 8 games per weekend before settling into a long season.
Arnie’s older brother drank and smoked and was seldom home, but he liked us; thought we were different. Every once in a while he would hang out and talk baseball and in the middle of a conversation, just get up and walk out. No goodbyes. Just a shake of his long straight hair and sweet ol’ nothing. Added to his mystery. He had street smarts, girls, played in a band and knew as much about Johnny LeMaster as we did. We looked up to him.
It was during one of our early season overnight strato marathons when he heated up cocaine on a flat sheet of tin foil and inhaled the vapors. We all tried and we all felt high, but Arnie looked as if he had found god and apparently he did.
That was the last night of Strato Arnie ever played with us. Within a few weeks he was gone, not dead, but gone as in out of town, dropped out of high school.There was nothing we could do other than move our games to another basement floor, so we did and we made it through high school without Arnie.
There are certain songs that remind me of those days; remind me of Arnie… like Rush’s “Lessons” or Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam.” I don’t forget faces or like to think I don’t so there were many times over the past 20 years when I was sure it was Arnie, but it wasn’t, but then it was.
I was at a baseball card show on Milwaukee’s South Side; Gonzaga Hall-92nd and Greenfield. He was bald and kind of fat, but looking healthy and awake. It took a few minutes, but he remembered.
We went outside for a cigarette. He spoke in confessions; needing to get it out every other sentence. He had followed his brother around for a few months and then found his own way from city to city with cocaine the only constant for 10 years or so and when crack cocaine become available, another 5 years.
But there was a turning point as I sort of expected. He was assaulted in San Francisco on the civic center steps during the early morning of a binge; got his head bashed in and “what do you think I saw?” he asked me. I had no idea so I offered him another cigarette, but he was too much in a hurry to speak.
“A 1961 Jim Konstanty baseball card. That’s what I saw. It was floating above my head. There were like five or six of them looking like birdies in a cartoon.”
We both looked at each other and didn’t say a word for maybe a minute. I knew the rest of his story was gonna be predictable; clean and sober for however many years and a key chain to prove it. I wanted to savor the significance of a baseball card appearing to him in maybe the darkest moment of his life and I think Arnie did too.
“Did you even have the card?”
He lit the cigarette. “It was my brother’s when we were kids before I ever knew you, before we played strato. I don’t know where he got it from, but he gave it to me and a couple dozen other cards. That Konstanty was the oldest. He had the look of a visionary on his face, that squinting, like someone who could see over the bullshit towards light at the end of a tunnel.
“Like Jim Brosnan?” I sort of joked
“Yeh, like Brosnan. For some reason or no reason at all, Konstanty’s face, that card never left me.”
Arnie works at a Hardware store and collects cards again or I wouldn’t call it collecting. He’s trying to get back cards he sold for the other kind of thrill.
He’d probably be pissed if he knew I was playing this song in his honor. He hated the Beatles.