brewers baseball and things


bell towers and Red Sox rookie stars

*this is a continuation of the previous two posts.

The grounds crew room was warm. There were no windows. The overhead pipes looked like stiff, above ground tree roots. The hammock didn’t sway. There was a slow drip of water from one of the pipes, bit it didn’t bother me. It was like the motor on the bus – a consistent, repetitive sound, soothing, a dark lullaby. I slept.

“You awake from your nap Trevor?” asked fungo man. “Or should we call you Butch like they did back home?”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said while falling out of the hammock and landing on my feet, standing up, a decent dismount.

“Well, how about we give you a new name,” said fungo man, “since you’ll be doing a job you’ve never done before – a writer for a new league, a new town, a new place to sleep.”

“And new hot dogs I hope.”

We both laughed.

“We’ll figure it out,” said fungo man. “Let’s discover your style and then we’ll come up with a name.”

I didn’t know what to expect about this new league and its 12 teams. But I knew all games would be at Hawthorne Stadium, and that a batter had three strikes to work with and that there would be chalked lines, and the delicious possibility that a game could go on forever, like that two-day, 25 inning marathon between the Brewers and White Sox back in 1984.

Fungo man walked towards me and patted me on the shoulder. “We’re gonna decide everything about this new Continental League. And you, my friend are a member of the Pigeon Committee. You get to vote on all matters.”

“Pigeon Committee? Why Pigeon?” I asked. “Why not Lion or better yet, a Robin Committee in honor of Robin Yount and Robin Roberts. There are no baseball players nicknamed pigeon.”

“No, it’s gotta be pigeons,” insisted fungo man. “They’ve come a long way.”

So much for voting I thought, but didn’t get a chance to express my opinion. Fungo man had more to say.

“From passenger birds carrying messages to them pigeons performing figure eight flight patterns, all together, every morning, looking like an aerial school of fish…that’s how we’re gonna be.”

It struck me as a tad communist, but it did remind me of my dad reeling off teams with a unified theme from the Gas House Gang to the facial hair of the Oakland A’s to Harvey’s Wallbangers and anyway, I had no other place to go and I liked this fungo man….

Wetchy, the pitching coach, was another matter…he struck me as a bit of an ass, someone who always needed to get in the last word, but he had given me a stack of empty notebooks before my nap, the same kind, he said, he used to track pitches, 154 lined pages per book, all that virgin paper. I reached for one of them. I was going to jot down this pigeon concept, but didn’t get a chance. A young man with a turtle neck walked through the door. He was wearing tan corduroys and brown shoes. He had a big smile on his face. He looked like an ivy league honor student. Couldn’t have been older than 20.

“This here is the manager of the Hawthorne Madcaps. His name is Billy Tomcat, but call him Catty,” said fungo man. “He might be young, but he knows his advance metrics and isn’t afraid to follow a hunch either, best of both worlds.”

“I hear from my cronies,” said Catty, “that you will be joining us on the Pigeon committee and that you will be writing about the Madcaps.”

“He’ll be writing about the entire Continental League,” interrupted fungo man.

“The hell he will,” screamed Catty. “He’s writing about the Madcaps and that’s it, that’s all.”

Fungo man removed his cap and bowed. The grounds crew room suddenly felt more like a dictatorship than a commune, so much for pigeon unity.

“And don’t forget,” continued Catty, “it was God who brought you here, as certain as a cow’s moo.”

I knew what had brought me to Hawthorne Stadium and it wasn’t god. It was thoughts of John Briggs and sleeping inside Memorial Stadium, as certain as a suicide squeeze. The door was still rattling when in walked another guy, shorter, with a straight jaw and large forearms. I had him pegged as a third baseman and I was right.

“This is our third baseman,” said fungo man. “Lance Henchman. I’ll leave you guys to it. Let’s get outta here Catty and let these guys talk.” Fungo man winked at me and then he and the skipper exited the scene.

“I deconstructed radios as a kid,” explained Henchman, skipping any hello, how do you do formalities.

“Did you put them back together?” I asked.

“So, you’re a smart ass,” said Henchman.

“Only when someone asks for it,” I replied.

A breeze hit my face. It wasn’t from outside. It couldn’t have been. There were no windows in there and no air conditioning or fan either. It made me feel alone and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I had the suspicion that I was being set up, framed. What was the point of getting involved with this team, this league, this Henchman. It would all suffer the same fate as wood stadiums and the Seattle Pilots – death and disintegration like my mom and dad, six feet under, eaten by worms. I wanted to be alone, to not be attached, to not suffer the here today gone tomorrow fate of us all.

I walked quickly to the door, opened it and stepped into the open air, under the seats. I looked to my left and the outdoor gate was still there, the same one I had entered through, a few hours earlier. I thought about the hill I’d seen when I first got off the bus. I had a tent and a sleeping bag. I could sleep there, under the trees, find a soup kitchen, loiter at the library during the day.

I could feel Henchman trailing me.

“Hold on Butch,” he yelled.

I had no idea how he knew my name. My suspicion grew. I ran as fast as I could and distanced myself from him, surprising since I had the sleeping bag and tent on my back, but Henchman had that belly. I ran until I was out of breath. To my right was a laundromat and attached to it, a giant chimney, a minaret that extended into a bell tower way up there, at least three Fenway Park green monsters high. There was a ladder on the side of the building. I stepped on the first rung, pulled myself up and continued.

“Stop,” screamed Henchman.

I looked down and there was Henchman, shaking. I knew about these practical people, guys like Henchman. Sure, they could deconstruct radios and handle the hot corner, but those were all gravity bound tasks. Ask them to climb a minaret and they would cower like a turtle crawling back in its shell.

I took one rung at a time, easy-peasy. I had a knack for climbing buildings. My dad used to compare me to Ken Griffey, the way he scaled walls and turned would be home runs into outs. I could have gone fast, could have reached the bell tower before Henchman made it half way up, but I wanted to see him suffer. I thought about my parent’s suicide and the injustice of it all, me, alone, orphaned at 23. I wanted revenge on the world.

Henchman was whispering some self-help mumbo jumbo to encourage himself to carry on and I have to admit, I was impressed by his resolve and determination, but it still smelled fake, contrived, like a set-up and yet, there I was, still as a Buddha statue, waiting for Henchman to catch up and he did and we climbed together. It was like I was under some spell.

I or I should say we eventually made it up and over the last hurdle, a short wall. We were inside the bell tower. I was calm, as calm as a no wind, early morning. Henchman was out of breath and sweating, but he had a smile on his face. He started laughing.

“Do you collect baseball cards?” he asked.

The question was delightfully random, completely out of nowhere. He didn’t give me time to answer.

“My favorite all-time baseball card is the 1972 Topps Red Sox Rookie card featuring Carlton Fisk, Cecil Cooper, and Mike Garman.”

Henchman sat down in the lotus position. I did too. I felt seduced, but liked the idea of rookies, of starting over.

“I wondered what happened to Garman?” I asked. I looked at Henchman. He shook his head. He didn’t know.

I suddenly had a lot more questions.



The Fun-go Man

The doctors said my father Frank suffered from “nervous complications.” He’d close both his eyes and then open them, over and over and over, some sort of twitch. There was nothing the doctors could do for him.

Dad never pocketed a nine ball on the break, but he tried. He bought a mini pool table for our basement. We played all the time. I liked the way you had to hit the balls in order, 1-9, every shot filled with so much possibility, all those balls banging and with a little luck, that nine ball might fall in the pocket for a victory.

My dad kept his boiler room/janitor job his entire adult life, 35 years and then he retired at 53, and no, he was no Cal Ripken in terms of consecutive work day streaks, but he did his overtime. He also stayed married to my mom too and in all honesty, I don’t remember them ever fighting. They weren’t always holding hands or kissing in public and didn’t have couch cushions that said “happiness is marrying your best friend.” They had their private lives like over the road truckers being away from their husband or wife for long stretches and those marriages lasting and so did my parent’s marriage.

I had read about single men dying young and experts saying it was because they ate a lot of macaroni and cheese and tuna fish and tended to drink booze. And I had some friends who grew up with single mothers and they told me about trips to the soup kitchen and food pantries and a slew of messed-up boyfriends to help their mother pay the rent. Not my my mom. She didn’t have to work double shifts and she always had pocket change to buy me baseball cards which jumpstarted my obsession – to complete every year’s Topps set. I’ll never forget missing one card from 1980. I didn’t know the player’s name, just his number – 623. I had every other card and then one day I got it. It had taken me an entire spring and summer and all my paper route money to get that card and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better than when I got that number 623 Gorman Thomas.

Mom and dad took an interest in my life too. We went to the zoo every year on Thanksgiving and we always ate dinner together on Monday nights and then watched a football or baseball game. Our getting along so well and them getting along so well made it shocking when they both overdosed on valium and beer. I was 19 and still living at home. I was the one who found them. There were police investigations about a possible homicide/suicide, but it was pretty obvious from the scene that it was a double suicide – two empty bottles of valium, one on my dad’s chest, the other under my mom’s chair and beer cans all over the floor, some standing up, a few flat on their side and a couple dented and mushed. I remember staring at those cans and thinking how they resembled land mines and how fragile life was and how fleeting happiness could be.

I had never worn a straight jacket, but I think how I felt that day was what it would be like if I was wearing one. I couldn’t move and could barely breathe. I had no brothers and sisters and all my other relatives lived out of town and I wasn’t close to any of them anyway so I just packed a small bag and attached a tent and sleeping bag to it and bought a bus ticket to go west. I picked San Diego as my destination but I had a ticket that allowed me to stop and stay in whatever city I wanted. I had three weeks until I had to get to San Diego or be stranded in whatever town I happened to be in and I had no intention of making it all the way to San Diego. I liked the idea of being set free in who knows where strange town and having to stay there, to start over, and deal with all the newness. I had like 100 dollars plus the bus ticket and anything would be better than our house and all those cops and journalists asking questions.

I always sat in the back of the bus, right above the motor. That sound provoked me. I went in and out of crying spells and anger tantrums. More than once, the drivers of the different buses threatened to kick me off, but I told them what had happened and he or she would put me in the front seat, reserved for the elderly or handicapped and we’d talk and that had me loving America more than I ever had in my life. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it was nothing profound. It was just good to talk to someone. I stopped in various towns. Spent one night in a motel for 20 bucks. It had a TV. The three weeks passed fast and then, there I was in this town whose name I had never heard before. It was warm and hilly there. Not too many green trees, but other kinds of trees. I’m sure they had names and classifications, but I didn’t need those. The shelter they offered was more than enough. I slept in those hills, under those trees and never really thought about coyotes or mountain lions or getting eaten to death. I didn’t care. I just wanted to stay outside and listen to the weird sounds of insects and birds and look around at all the stars so that’s exactly what I did and I pretended that I was a member of some Native American tribe that believed my mom had become the moon and my dad one of the birds that strangely stayed in the branches of the tree I had made my temporary home.

I eventually grew tired of that tree and the moon and wandered into town. There were a lot of dirt roads and an abandoned gas station. I found the main street. There was more than one traffic light and a lot of small houses, some of which were shacks with aluminum siding. They looked like mini hangars, the ones that house airplanes. I still didn’t know the name of the town. I found a nice space under a storefront awning. “Keep clean and there be no problem,” was written on a piece of cardboard and stuck against the window. I liked the communication so when I had to go the bathroom that night, I made sure to piss in a plastic bottle and the next morning I found a sewer and emptied it. Made a nice sound as it hit the water way down below. I still had 50 bucks and the soup kitchen served three meals a day, weekends too.

I eventually found out the name of the town. It was Marshville. It said so on the post office front door. I had no letters to send, but I had a lot of energy that day. I started seeing things – rolled up pieces of newspaper, fallen branches, tumbleweed and beer cans and I liked all the broken promises in everything like a branch no longer connected to its source and a beer can already drunk and a used condom already used. . I wasn’t much of a drinker back then…..but beer was the last thing my parents drank and I wanted to feel what they felt, not the desperation, but the elation and then like destiny or something I stumbled on an abandoned stroller and knew exactly what to do – go to a booze store and buy beer, lots of it, a 12 pack, hide it in the stroller with the curtain pulled down over the opening. No one would know I had beer on board. They’d think I was a good father. I still had 40 bucks. I walked and drank for a long time. It was like sleep walking and then when the beer ran out, I woke up.

I hid the stroller in some bushes and then kind of suddenly……suddenly because my head had been down, there it was – Hawthorne Stadium. That’s what it said on the red brick wall in fat black letters. I wondered what a Hawthorne was? Some sort of bird? Underneath the name was a bat and a ball. I tiptoed towards the back. I don’t know why I tiptoed. It was fun. I slipped under a chain. I loved exploring the innards of a baseball stadium. I once slept inside Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and thought about touring the country and sleeping in each MLB stadium, trespassing, loitering, always at home. I loved the top of the first when the players, when the defenders shot out of the dugout like bottle rockets, each with its own destination on the diamond or grass.

And so there I was, under the chain and inside. I walked and a fence was open. It was the home run fence. I looked at the warning track and outfield grass and off in the distance, the brown dirt. I was in the outfield bleachers. I looked to the right of the bleachers. There was a building. It was the other part of the stadium. I walked under the stadium seats and knew this was a great place to sleep. And if I was nine ball lucky, I could get to know an old beer vendor and he could get me beer and we could drink together and hopefully he wouldn’t get fired and we’d become buddies all summer. It was dark under the seats and I liked it. I heard some metal scraping the cement floor. I followed the sound and came to a door marked clubhouse. I entered. There were two people standing beside lockers. The light was on.

“Game today?” I asked, half scared of getting busted and half sincerely curious.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” asked one of the men. They were both wearing a uniform. “This is the clubhouse. It’s for the players. Get outta here before I call the cops!”

“I just have a few questions, mostly about the stadium,” I said with a surprising lilt in my voice, surprising because it felt like confidence which I usually didn’t have.

“What kind of questions,” asked the same man who had threatened to call the cops.”

And so I started talking about houses and castles and churches and bridges and all the things man had built, from teepees to skyscrapers to baseball stadiums. And what d’ya know, the other guy in a uniform walked to a fridge, removed three beers and offered me one.

I was already drunk, but the beer didn’t hurt any, the generosity in the giving loosened my tongue even more.

“Dugouts too,” I said. “I’ve never slept in one but the Indians used to have dugout canoes, probably still do somewhere.”

“Ambrosia is pitching tonight,” said the man who gave me the beer. “it wasn’t my idea. It was his.”

He pointed at the other man.

“That’s the pitching coach,” he continued, “or that’s what they call him anyway.”

“And this bozo is our charity case,” said the pitching coach. “He hits fungos to the outfielders. The organization doesn’t have the heart to let him walk.”

“Hey, I’ve been here longer than you Wetchy!” snapped back the fungo man.

“I’m Andy Wetchenman. They call me Wetchy. I’m the pitching coach and the fungo man, we just call him Fungo.”

“Did you ever see the players not have fun with me?” asked fungo man. “How could they not have fun with me? I hit them balls to the wall and over the wall and in between, those perfect fungo blasts that inspire over the wall catches. I betchya those catches they make raise up their morale.”

I popped the top of my Pabst.