Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tom Yawkey, Race, and the Smoking Gun II


 
(as published in Boston Baseball September 2017)

 

On April 16, 1945 the Red Sox held their infamous tryout of Jackie Robinson. For the next fourteen years - and for some years beyond it - the question of race during the tenure of Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey loomed over the Red Sox franchise as palpably as the Green Monster. While it is undeniable that the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, since that time there continue to be apologists – both in the press and among Red Sox fans – who sought somehow to explain away the franchise’s long-standing recalcitrance and failure to put a black ballplayer on the field.

Most recently, in the wake of John Henry’s desire to see Yawkey Way renamed, some have chosen to revisit an issue the Red Sox organization has long viewed as decided. In one example, Yawkey biographer Bill Nowlin recently told the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, “I never once found any evidence that Yawkey was personally racist... I looked for a smoking gun, and couldn’t find one.”

Time and again, others have asked this same question, as history has tended to place the blame squarely upon Yawkey, the man at the top and the one figure in the franchise who could have integrated the Red Sox in an instant, yet did not. They argue that not only was Yawkey not personally bigoted, but that the failure lay elsewhere, either among the organization’s scouts, the structure of its southern-based minor league system, or upon others in the organization, from general managers Eddie Collins and Joe Cronin, to manager and general manager Pinky Higgins.

There is a long tradition of Yawkey defenders. In 1986 the late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough rushed to defend Yawkey after coach Tommy Harper filed a successful suit with the EEOC, writing that, “They smear the man and his memory with the legacy of Pumpsie Green and Tommy Harper.... I knew Tom Yawkey, the Man to whom they trace all of this alleged racist history. I never thought he was racist. But I wasn't as close to him as Joe Cronin and Dick O'Connell were. These two former Sox general managers knew him as well as anyone in Boston. Over the years, I asked both if Yawkey ever suggested they do anything racist. The answer was no." In 1991, after Globe reporter Steve Fainaru authored a three-part series on race and the Red Sox, McDonough again distilled the issue down to the matter of who within the organization "was racist," as if that was the only question worth asking. "Was it late owner Tom Yawkey, or his widow Jean who now controls the organization, was it a series of general managers–Joe Cronin, Pinky Higgins, Dick O'Connell and Lou Gorman? Are we to believe it is the scouting department...? Once again, no names....”

A little more than a decade later, following the publication of “Red Sox Century,” a history of the club this author co-wrote with Richard Johnson that addressed the racial issue head on, McDonough again went on the offensive, calling me at home. "The only problem the Red Sox have ever had with blacks," he said to me, "was finding blacks who could play, alright?"

A few years later Howard Bryant’s book “Shut Out,” a comprehensive look at the question, appeared to be final word on the subject, pointing out the long-term impact, including the teams’ continued recalcitrance even after Yawkey’s death to sign African American free agents, a pattern that has ended under Henry. Yet some still hold Yawkey blameless and continue to ask “Where is the evidence, the smoking gun, the definitive act or statement the exposes Tom Yawkey as a racist?” Yawkey himself rarely spoke about the matter himself on the record and did not leave a written record of his attitude in regard to race. They prefer to focus on anecdotes that speak to his private interactions and the charitable contributions the Yawkey Foundation has made long after his death rather than the indisputable comportment of the organization under his leadership, as if one cancels out the other.

I have long believed that the only evidence that mattered was in plain view on the playing field for every day of the fourteen years between Robinson’s tryout and Green’s appearance. But for those who disagree, consider Jack Mann’s Sports Illustrated feature, “The Great Wall of Boston,” published on June 28, 1965.

Mann, who died in March of 2000, was a staff writer at Sports Illustrated and offered that the main reason the team had recently failed to compete for a pennant was because the Red Sox, as a franchise, had sought to build a team to take advantage of the wall and were therefore unable to win on the road. But Mann admitted other possibilities, such as Yawkey’s misplaced loyalty, which caused him to hang onto favored players for too long and hire old cronies as scouts, many of who simply received checks and did no scouting at all.

But Mann also broached the question of race with Yawkey directly, something local sportswriters historically neglected.

“One way to win,” wrote Mann of the Red Sox, “is to have the best players. The Red Sox did in 1946, but coincidentally that was the year Jackie Robinson—who had been tried in Fenway Park and found wanting—played his first year in organized (white) baseball. In the parade of Larry Dobys and Roy Campanellas and Elston Howards that followed, the Red Sox brought up the rear… It is easy now for Bostonian critics, seeking a policy man behind such a self-defeating pattern, to point fingers at Mike Higgins, an unreconstructed Texan with classically Confederate views on Negroes, but it is too easy. Higgins, who did not become field manager until 1955 and did not take a desk in the front office until late 1962, could hardly have been the Caucasian in the woodpile.

The owner responded with statements both telling and damning:

"They blame me,” Yawkey says, “and I'm not even a Southerner. I'm from Detroit… I have no feeling against colored people,” he says. “I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn't want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer."

That statement is telling.

Yawkey first assigns blame to his Southern employees, intimating that because he was born in Detroit, he is obviously not a racist, and that because they are from the South, they presumably are. But he doesn’t stop there.

He next offers that he has no feelings against African Americans, citing the fact that he employs African Americans on his 20,000 acre South Carolina estate, a former plantation. But that is hardly the equivalent of putting a ball player on a major league field, and as late as 1959 the Sox employed none in any capacity on or off the field, not even as vendors.

But if you need one, then comes the first smoking gun: “But they are clannish,” Mann quotes Yawkey as saying of African Americans, “and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club.”

No single sentence could be more revealing. First Yawkey clearly believes that all African Americans share the same characteristic – in this case, being “clannish,” the kind of dubious stereotyping that has been used to provide a moral justification for segregation. But when he states “when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club,” he is in fantasy land, blaming the African American ballplayers themselves. He is saying, in effect, that “because African Americans erroneously thought we were racist, they refused to sign with us.”

The notion that an African American ballplayer in the late 1940s and 1950s would turn down an offer to sign with any major league team for any reason sounded spurious to me, and in a survey of the Negro League history books I could find no such accounting. But I wanted to be sure and since then have broached the question to a number of baseball historians asking, “Are you aware of any Negro League players, from the time Robinson signed to the late 1950s, who turned down offers from major league teams to remain in the Negro Leagues?” and if any had heard of such a claim in regard to a player refusing to sign with the Red Sox.

The answer is “no.” None could recall a single instance of a player turning down an offer to sign with a major league team when such an offer was made – before free agency no player of any color could choose their employer. Wrote Lawrence Hogan, Professor of History at Union College in New Jersey, one of the foremost Negro League historians in the country and the author of “Shades of Glory,” published by National Geographic and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “I have never heard even the slightest suggestion of either thing you mention happening... I cannot imagine any Negro League player turning down an offer, other than on the normal personal grounds of not enough money being offered, or wanting to get on with life in a non-baseball way.”

Yawkey’s final statement - “We scouted them right along, but we didn't want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer," - might be the most telling. For if we follow Yawkey’s logic – “We looked for black ballplayers but we wanted talent first and foremost” – then consider that from the time of Robinson’s signing to July of 1959, the Red Sox neither put an African American player on the major league field that they signed themselves nor even traded for one already in the majors.

The conclusion is inescapable: Against all evidence to the contrary, Yawkey and his organization refused to admit that any black ballplayer had enough talent to play for the Red Sox. This, despite the fact that they were playing on every other team in baseball, and that by 1959 nearly nine percent of all players in MLB were African American, winning championships, winning Cy Young awards and MVP awards and playing on All-Star teams, players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe and many, many, many more. None, apparently, were good enough for Boston. “We wanted a ballplayer,” indeed. And the result of that was on the field, and in the standings for decades.

There, in his own words, if you need one, is a “smoking gun” Decades after they were first uttered, the echoes still resound around Fenway Park.

[Note: Adapted and condensed from a 2009 blog post which appears in slightly different form here: http://verbplow.blogspot.com/2009/11/tom-yawkey-race-and-smoking-gun.html. Further information on the Red Sox organization’s racial history and sources cited can be found below.]

Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Boston, 2002)

Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century (Boston, 2000)

Glenn Stout. “Tryout and Fallout: Race, Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox,” Massachusetts Historical Review, Volume 6, 2004.

Will McDonough, "Ticket Increase at Fenway Shouldn't Raise Fan's Ire," Boston Globe, Dec. 2, 2000 (contains McDonough’s and John Harrington’s criticism of Red Sox Century and defense of Yawkey).

Will McDonough, "Sox Racist? Says Who? Harper Case No Proof," Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1986.

Glenn Stout is series editor of The Best American Sports Writing. www.glennstout.net

 

Friday, March 3, 2017

WRITING A BOOK PROPOSAL ... AND NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT IT

I recently consulted with an established narrative non-fiction writer on a potential book publishing project. As we talked, he said “I can write the book proposal... that’s not a big deal,” and began to speak of other issues. I stopped him almost immediately and asked “Have you ever written a book proposal?” He admitted he had not.

Unfortunately, this is biggest impediment most writers face in the book publishing process, and one that is usually the difference between just having an idea for a book and actually having one published.

The purpose of the proposal is two-fold. One, it helps a writer clarify and identify the book they intend to write, to push the concept forward from “I’d like to write a book about X” toward something more specific and coherent. Here’s an example: Several years ago as the 100th anniversary of the building of Fenway Park approached, I knew I wanted to write something about that – I had the authoritative background to do so. But I also knew that the anniversary was certain to inspire a number of titles on Fenway Park. How could mine stand out? And how could I do something different?

Although I knew I wanted to write about Fenway’s history, simply saying I wanted to write a book about the history of Fenway Park was not nearly specific enough – all anniversary books would in some way try to do that. I needed an organizing principle, one that could be distilled into a single sentence that was clear, concise and unique. A lifetime of writing and more than a dozen successful proposals for single books and series had taught me this.

I was driving to my local town dump one Saturday when it hit me: instead of trying to tell the entire 100-year history of Fenway, I would tell the story of only its first season, from groundbreaking in the fall of 1911 through the 1912 World Series, which culminated in a world championship for the Red Sox. I knew that as I told the story of the ballpark’s construction and first season that would give me the opportunity to write about its larger history as well – the first home run hit over the left field wall would allow me to write about the Green Monster. My idea could then be easily distilled to a title and a single sentence: Fenway 1912, the building of America’s most beloved ballpark and its first championship season.

When I returned home, I sent a one paragraph description to my agent and he was immediately enthusiastic. I had written more than a dozen successful proposals before, and consulted on a number of others, so I was familiar with the format and intention. But having a well-defined idea was essential, and made the proposal itself a relatively straight-forward process. I had a finished proposal within a week and received an offer almost immediately. That book, eventually entitled Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year was easily the most successful of what eventually became nearly 20 books written in response to the anniversary, making best-seller lists in New England and winning several awards.

But that’s just one aspect of the proposal – just as important is recognizing that the proposal is a sales document. If a writer does not have an agent, the next goal of the proposal is to attract an agent, and then, in turn, a publisher. A writer needs not just an idea, but then needs to know how to frame and present that idea in a way that underscores both his and her own abilities, but also the marketability of the manuscript, to show its appeal to a well-defined readership.

Unlike what the writer believed at the start of this post, this is actually“ a big deal.” In fact, It’s actually a HUGE deal, for even a great idea, poorly presented and executed, is easy to reject. Every year publishers are hit with millions of book ideas. The whole idea is to make it impossible for them to say “No.”
This is a skill, one that can be taught and learned, and something I now do professionally, both privately and in workshop settings. If one wishes to become a professional author, learning how to write a successful proposal is absolutely essential. How essential? One more short story.

Three weeks ago I was speaking with a publisher. A basic book idea came up in conversation, but one that, due to timing, had a relatively small window to succeed. Within 24 hours I had taken that basic idea, drilled it down to something clear, concise and unique, and completed a basic proposal and forwarded it to my agent.

A few days later, my agent and I reached agreement with a publisher on a contract.

 Glenn Stout is the author and editor of more than 90 books. He will be teaching a three-day workshop entitled “Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal... Not just talking about it” at the Archer City Story Center in Archer City, Texas this summer (http://archercitystorycenter.org/professional-workshops/), and giving a one-hour presentation “The Book Proposal: What Agents Want” at the New Hampshire Writer’s Project “Writer’s Day” on April 1, 2017 (http://www.nhwritersproject.org/content/writers-day-1). He also does private consultations on longform narrative non-fiction, book proposals and book manuscripts. For more, see  www.glennstout.net

Thursday, January 26, 2017

THAT TIME I REALLY, TRULY, CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO DIE VOTED ILLEGALLY


 

I must confess. I knowingly once committed voter fraud.

And my co-conspirator was the lunch lady. 

In June of 1976 I was 17 years old and had just graduated from high school in a small town in Central Ohio.  On primary day, June 8, I looked forward to exercising my right to vote for the first time. Although at 17 I was not yet voting age, anyone who would turn 18 by Election Day in November was eligible to vote in the presidential primary.  The rest of the ballot was off limits. To vote for anything else was strictly illegal.

For a 17 year old, I was reasonably politically aware. The presidential race that year was the first post-Watergate, and President Gerald Ford was facing a strong challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Yet much to the consternation of my father and most other relatives, I considered myself a Democrat, a rarity in our community, and had followed the Democratic primary closely. 

No fewer than fifteen Democratic candidates vied for the nomination that year, ranging from the eventual winner, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, to California Governor Jerry Brown, a half a dozen Senators including West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson of Washington, Frank Church of Iowa, Texan Lloyd Bentsen and Oklahoma’s Fred Harris, plus former ambassador and Kennedy crony Sargent Shriver, Utah Representative Mo Udall and Alabama Governor and noted segregationist George Wallace.

I considered myself a Harris supporter, intrigued by his call for “economic democracy,” his early opposition to the Vietnam War and his populist approach – he stayed in voter’s homes during his campaign. But in a primary season that began in January, Carter surprised by taking command early.  Harris dropped out in March and many others soon after. By June 8, the last date of the primary season, Carter’s nomination was a foregone conclusion.

Still, I was determined to exercise my right to vote. By then, I liked Jerry Brown, but he’d been a late entry and wasn’t on the ballot in Ohio. I grudgingly decided to back Mo Udall.

On the day of the primary I dutifully drove to the polls in the township building at my old elementary school, a small rural school that catered to farm families and where the fall harvest was a legitimate excuse to miss class. Everyone knew each other, and I remember that when I walked into the polls that day, the first face I saw was that of matronly Mrs. Huggett.  She came from a farming family and was a local institution.  She was everybody’s grandmother, the smiling “lunch lady” at our school, responsible for doling out the tater tots, pizza burgers, canned peas and morning milk.

She greeted me warmly. “Hi Gary, let me check you in. Nice to see you back from school.” The other women and men working the poll smiled their What-a-nice-young man smiles.

Gary?  I was Glenn. Gary was my brother, older than me by four years and who I vaguely resembled.  I think he’d just finished college in Minnesota and was celebrating by hitch-hiking all over Europe.

Before I had a chance to respond, she crossed Gary’s name off the rolls and steered me toward a bank of voting machines that contained the full ballot rather than the single machine reserved for 17 year olds.

I said nothing.  Who was I to question Mrs. Huggett, who had fed me every school day for six long years?  

The automatic Rockwell voting machine was a self-contained steel contraption on wheels with a built-in curtain that closed when you entered.  Before me were lists of names, separated by office, each with a tiny black lever that registered the vote.

I was thrilled.  Maybe now I’d get to vote against our local congressman, the one with a name right out of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” That was Chalmers Pangburn Wylie (pictured above), a longtime, ultra-conservative, do-nothing rubber stamp of a Republican. His lone moment in the national spotlight would come a decade later when he attached an amendment to a bill that cut funding for the Library of Congress in the precise amount the Library spent producing the braille version of Playboy. True story.

Alas, he wasn’t on the ballot. I then realized that, this being a primary, I was only allowed to vote for candidate of a single party. I dutifully pulled the lever that activated the Democratic slate.

There wasn’t much to choose from.  As far as I can determine the only primaries other than that for presidency was for the U.S. Senate and the state supreme court.

Still, the my lot was cast and there was no turning back. After some hesitation and a sentimental moment considering whether to write in either Fred Harris or Jerry Brown, I skipped over Carter and Jackson and Church and George Wallace and pulled the lever, first for Udall and then for the slate of delegates and alternates that supported him.  Then I committed, that’s right, voter fraud, pulling the lever for Howard Metzenbaum for U.S. Senate, and some name for each of two openings for the state Supreme Court.

Barely a minute after in entered the booth, I pulled back the curtain.  My co-conspirator, Mrs. Huggett, waved a cheerful goodbye. 

Fortunately, the statute of limitations for my offense has long since expired and democracy survived my moral transgression. 

Still, I apologize. Especially to Mrs. Huggett.

 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

NINE MONTHS AT GROUND ZERO: THE WORKERS WHO LED THE RECOVERY EFFORT AT THE WORLD TRADE CENTER

From Nine Months at Ground Zero

[ In 2006 I co-wrote and published Nine Months at Ground Zero with Charlie Vitchers and Bobby Gray, two of the hundreds of construction workers to respond after the 9/11 attacks.  The book was built from nearly 100 hours of interviews.

Even today, most people believe the cleanup was accomplished by members of the police and fire departments; it was not. Most first responders rotated through the site in shifts of a few weeks while hundreds of construction workers put in 18 and 20 hour days for months, beginning to end, determined to find remains and provide closure for families.

Although the book was not a particular commercial success, a substantial portion of the proceeds were donated to charity.  It remains the only book which documents the contribution of the workers on the ground and helped inspire legislation that provided medical coverage and other benefits to Ground Zero workers, many of whom still suffer the effects of their service today.  Although not in print in hard copy today, it remains available as an e-book and used copies can be acquired from online booksellers.

Vitchers and many other 9/11 workers continue their work today through the New York Says Thank You Foundation.   To thank them, see http://newyorksaysthankyou.org/ for more information.  To skip the author’s note and got directly to Chapter One, scroll down.]



Authors’ Note: 
 
To Charlie Vitchers, Bobby Gray and other construction workers in New York, the attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent collapse of the Towers was a sucker punch to the gut.
They knew thousands of innocents had been killed, that their city and their country had been attacked. Their outrage did not stop there.   Something they had built with their own hands had been taken down.  Their work had been destroyed, their legacy ruined, the collective memory of their industry wiped off the map.  Not only did almost  everybody working in construction in New York know someone who worked at the Trade Center – a neighbor or a cousin, a co-worker or a friend – many had worked there themselves, either when the buildings were first built or later, as other buildings went up in the complex or floors of the Towers were retrofitted for tenants.   They took the attacks personally.

The World Trade Center complex were not just two of the largest and best- known structures in the world, they were the  signature buildings of the New York construction industry, the epitome of what it could create.  Over the course of their construction, which began in 1966, thousands of union tradesmen had worked on the Towers, and their success sparked a new era in New York hi-rise construction.  In a city which hadn’t seen its skyline change dramatically in years, after the Towers were built there were suddenly cranes everywhere.  Over the next few decades New York’s skyline would take on an entirely new silhouette.  
 
The Towers themselves were so enormous that their construction inspired logistical innovations never before used in New York construction.  Each of the 200,000 steel columns, panels and joists was etched and stenciled with a code.  None were fabricated on site.  Each was a unique piece of an incredibly complicated puzzle.  The steel itself was lifted in place by a method developed in Australia, what were known as  “Kangaroo cranes,” or “tower cranes,” cranes attached to a tower fixed to the structure, that jacked itself up and rose with the building.  Despite their novelty, New York tradesmen had easily adapted and both had since become more or less standard in high-rise construction in New York and elsewhere.
 
The construction workers who built the Towers carried the experience as a badge of honor – they had built the biggest and the best, succeeding spectacularly, a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Since first breaching the New York skyline, the Trade Center was the touchstone against which all other jobs were compared in scale and complexity, still discussed during coffee breaks and over beers after work.  As older workers passed away, it was not uncommon to find a line in a newspaper obituary that noted that the deceased had helped build the Towers.

But when the Towers were attacked and then fell, the sense of pride and accomplishment the construction workers felt  was cut off at the ground.  The buildings were down, and in some strange way, though through no fault of their own,  they had failed because what was never meant to fall somehow had.  In response, the had an instinctive reaction.  Before anyone articulated the need for their skills, thousands of them knew that now another job was calling them out, one that only they knew they could do.   The rough logic of their own experience as ironworkers, laborers, carpenters, electricians, crane operators and dozens of other trades told them that just as only they had once built the Towers, they were now the only people in the world equipped for the task ahead. They had the skills, and more importantly, they felt an obligation, a duty.  Their response was simple and uncomplicated; anything they had built, they could take down, because before anything else could be built in its place – and they believed it would – they had to erase what had just taken place.
 
With that realization a new challenge began to take shape.  From a pile of rubble so immense that it resisted description, they would restore order.   That was the only job that mattered now. 
 
Chapter One: The Attacks

It is a story now heartbreakingly familiar. An invigorating September morning, crisp and blue and perfect. New Yorkers across the city were sitting down with the Daily News or the Post, making breakfast for their kids, returning from their jog, grabbing a cup of coffee, getting ready for the day ahead. Some were already on their way to the subway. And at least one particular group of New Yorkers was already at work.

Construction workers start their days early. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the building site at the corner of 59th Street and 6th Avenue was already in full swing. The old St. Moritz Hotel was getting a full makeover.

It was an interesting job, a meticulous job. The exterior of the St. Moritz — a landmark building — was made of carved terra-cotta and decorated with gargoyles and rams’ heads. All of the ornamental stone work was being taken down, piece by piece, and reset by stonemason subcontractors. The upper floors were completely enclosed by scaffolding. At the top of the building, the crew was putting up ornate brickwork on the exterior of the edifice that housed the cedar water tower. It was the last of the architectural façade work to be laid back onto the building. On the interior, renovation and rebuilding were under way on every floor.

One of the half-dozen supervisors on the site was Charlie Vitchers. A native New Yorker, Vitchers had worked construction for thirty years and was now a superintendent for Bovis Lend Lease, one of the world’s largest construction management firms.

At 8:45 A.M. on that peerless September morning, with a cup of coffee in his hand, Charlie Vitchers was a content man. Three of his kids were grown and out of the house. The other three were still in school, living with their mother on Long Island. It was a beautiful fall day, the kind that makes New Yorkers fall in love with their city all over again. And while he was looking forward to opening his own bait and tackle shop, the building in which he now stood was coming along nicely, and the stone work truly was exceptional.

One minute later, at 8:46 A.M., American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the World Trade Center Number One, the North Tower, and for Charlie Vitchers — and everyone else in the city, indeed, for all Americans — life changed forever.

Charlie Vitchers

I was working on a thirty-seven-story project. From the ground up to the twenty-second floor, the St. Moritz was going to remain a hotel, but from the twenty-third floor up it was going to be residential condominiums. The building had deteriorated over the years and we were taking the top off — the twenty-eighth floor up to the thirty-seventh floor had to be removed, demolished, and rebuilt. From the twenty-second floor down, we were doing a complete gut, taking out all the walls and rebuilding each floor.

Work starts at 7 A.M., so I’d normally take the E train from my apartment in Chelsea and get there between 6 and 7. I rolled in that morning at about 7 o’clock, grabbed coffee, and did my normal routine. It was a typical day.

I got into the Alimak, an exterior hoist on the building similar to an elevator, and had coffee with the hoist operator, a guy named Smitty. He brought me all the way up to the roof. I generally start each day on the job with a safety walk-through. It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to make a quick run-through of the building to make a safety assessment, to make sure that all the nets and other safety systems are in place, and if they’re not, to report by radio to whoever’s responsible for the safety of the job. You have to make sure that all the safety rules spelled out in Article 19 of the New York building code are followed.

I started at the top and walked down. You hit every floor where guys are working. At about the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth floor, just before 9 A.M., Smitty came back up on the hoist and said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I said, “What kind of plane?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “We just heard it on the news.”

We went up to the roof but didn’t have a view of the World Trade Center from that building. We even climbed up on the ladder on the outside of the water tower to get another twenty feet higher. But we still couldn’t see the Trade Center. We were blocked by most of the tall buildings in and around Times Square. We couldn’t see anything downtown at first, no smoke, nothing.

Some of the guys had a radio and heard reports that a plane hit the building. A lot of guys, including myself, were thinking it must have been a student pilot that flew out of Teterboro. A freak thing.
Then we started to see smoke above the skyline. Now I’m thinking, “Holy shit. That must be a major fire.” Then I saw this flash, a bright orange fireball explode out to the east. It created a plume of smoke that shot straight out horizontally and then just disappeared. I figured the plane that had hit the building had blown up.

Then I got word from someone that a second plane had hit the second tower. At that point, I knew something was up. I got a call on the cell phone from Jon Kraft, the general super on the job. At Bovis, the general superintendent is a formal title for the super in charge of a project worth over $60 million or more than a million square feet, and this job was that big. I was a superintendent working under the general super.

He said, “Charlie, we’re evacuating the building. Something’s going on downtown.” I called my foremen and told them to tell everyone to leave, then I walked from the top down to make sure everyone was gone. I walked all the floors, went into all the mechanical rooms, went into all the machine rooms and checked, just in case there was a guy in there listening to headphones while he’s screwing a motor together or something. I found a couple of steamfitters having coffee and told them to get out.

I still didn’t really know what was going on. I walked down the stairs, went into the operator’s shanty. In there were about twenty-five guys all staring at a television watching the second plane go into the South Tower.

Just south of Charlie Vitchers’s work site, another man was watching the same scene. His name was Bobby Gray.
 
Gray is an operating engineer, a crane operator. So is his older brother. So is his younger brother. His father was an operating engineer, as well. It’s a tradition; it’s in the blood.

On September 11, 2001, Bobby Gray was perched in a crane fifty stories up, at a building site on the edge of Times Square. A member of Local 14 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Gray is certified to operate virtually all heavy machinery, though for the last twenty years he has worked almost exclusively on the behemoth machines known as climbing cranes. He is a second-generation New Yorker. His father was born in Hell’s Kitchen and raised his family in Yonkers.
Construction is a sophisticated business. The level of complexity involved in raising a seventy-story superstructure is staggering. One of the most important — and nerve-racking — jobs on a skyscraper build is that of crane operator. Gray will tell you it’s also the most fun. After all, Bobby Gray quit college because he felt more comfortable sitting on a piece of heavy machinery than sitting in anatomy class
.
Working with ironworkers, Bobby, as operating engineer, must ensure that each steel beam — and all other material too big or too heavy to go in the hoist — is raised safely to the top of the building and then set precisely into place. When the job is done well, no one notices — a building rises slowly on the horizon. When it is not, it becomes a headline. There is no margin for error; errors get people killed.

At 8:45 A.M. that morning, as he maneuvered a bucket full of 31/2 cubic yards of concrete 600 feet in the air, a streak across the sky broke Gray’s concentration.

Bobby Gray
On September 11, I was working just west of Times Square on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue, across the street from The New York Times building. The crane was at the top of the building, fifty stories, 500 or 600 feet, off the ground, what we call topped out, meaning we weren’t adding any more floors. The crane always sits higher than the building so the crane deck can swing around 360 degrees without obstruction. The boom of the crane reached up another couple of hundred feet.

The night before there was a Monday night football game. I remember having maybe one beer too many and waking up a little bit later than I should have. I was supposed to be in the crane for a 6 o’clock start and I was running late.

Going to work I remember thinking it was going to be a great sunrise — the sun came up at about 6:30 A.M. I usually wear boat shoes and shorts to work and then change, put my work shoes on, and climb up the crane. The morning of September 11, I didn’t have time to do that. I climbed the crane wearing a pair of deck shoes, a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a sweat shirt. It was my favorite weather. It was cool, kind of crisp, not a cloud in the sky. My younger brother, Michael, was also on a climber crane, maybe fifteen, twenty blocks away. I could see his crane clear as a bell.

Then about 8:45 A.M. a jet flew over. I was like, “WOW! Holy shit, this guy is low! What’s he doing so low?” I had never seen a plane that low in Manhattan.

I was lifting up a bucketful of concrete to pour a floor deck and turned back to pay attention to what I was doing. Then my girlfriend called me on the cell phone and told me a plane had hit the Towers. I had a regular AM/FM radio in the cab and I started listening. I put it on the PA system so everyone on the roof deck could hear. I looked out the window of the crane downtown. I could see about half of the North Tower and just a sliver of the South Tower behind it and could see the smoke pouring out. Because of my perspective, I wasn’t sure which building had been hit.

At first they were reporting it was a small plane and for a few minutes I didn’t even put it together that the plane that hit the North Tower was the plane that flew right over us. Then everyone on the roof looked at each other and went, “Holy shit — that had to be the same plane.”

We could all see the smoke pouring out and blowing to the east. That’s when the South Tower got hit. We could only see just a little bit of it, but we actually saw this fireball blowing out of the side of the South Tower. I thought that maybe something inside the North Tower had ignited and caused the fireball, maybe the plane hit the mechanical room and it caused some kind of explosion. We didn’t realize that another plane had come in from the south. And then of course that came in over the radio. And everybody was just stunned. Just absolutely stunned.

Gray’s assumption was correct. The plane that passed over his head was Flight 11. After taking off from Boston at 8:00 A.M., Flight 11 was hijacked en route to Los Angeles and turned south, roughly following the Hudson River toward New York, and entered air space above northern Manhattan, far uptown. Less than forty seconds later, tracking almost due south at nearly 500 miles per hour, the 767 passed over Times Square. Twenty seconds after Gray first saw the plane, it smashed into the façade of the North Tower. The nose of the plane entered the building at the ninety-fourth floor, more than 1,000 feet above the ground, and was swallowed up in a quarter of a second. Fourteen hundred people were working above the floor of impact. None would survive.

Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 similarly violated the South Tower, World Trade Center Two. Only forty-six minutes would pass between the moment of impact and that of collapse. Approximately 8,500 people were already at work in Tower Two. Of those who worked below the point of impact, the vast majority would survive. Above the point of impact, most would perish.

The world watched with growing horror as billows of black smoke spread over downtown Manhattan. Soon flames could be seen in the furious clouds of ash. Debris and worse began to rain onto the plaza. In those early minutes, shock, paralysis, and fear gripped the country; such an abomination could not happen here.

Stunned with incomprehension, New Yorkers struggled to react.

Charlie Vitchers

I stared at that TV in disbelief. At first everybody on the site was stunned; nobody knew what to do.
Port Authority was closing the bridges and tunnels. New York was shutting down. We sent home about 300 people — everybody who wasn’t on our Bovis payroll, all the subcontractors, electricians, steamfitters, carpenters, plumbers, and masons. The only people that stayed were a couple operating engineers we needed to run the hoists and our own staff of supervisors and laborers. Maybe a couple dozen people. The general super sent the whole project team into the main office on the third floor. Jim Abadie, a VP with Bovis, was going to get back to us at 1 o’clock to let us know who was staying and who could go home.

Every fire truck…every police car was blowing like thunder downtown. The streets were just loaded with people walking. Hundreds of thousands of people not saying hardly a word, all heading in the same direction, all just getting out of New York City. There was no panic. People were just walking away.

When I first saw the footage of the Towers on fire on TV, I didn’t know those buildings were going to come down. I thought the sprinkler system might extinguish the flames. But after seeing that fireball and knowing the construction of those buildings, there was no doubt in my mind that if the floors above started to collapse — they would be the first ones to go because of the heat — they would just drop down on top of each other. If every floor above the fire suddenly collapsed, there was no way that building was going to sustain the weight of all those floors collapsing from above.

Bobby Gray

I climbed down from the crane and walked up 43rd Street into Times Square. They had a shot of the Towers on the big Jumbotron television and I saw the South Tower fall. Even with all my experience in construction, I never, never ever, never ever imagined it was going to fall.

Some people were still going about their business — I don’t know if they didn’t know what had happened or what. I remember thinking of the casualties and almost not being able to breathe. Just to see it, the way it came down, knowing that place, having been there, having worked down there, I thought we had just lost 60,000 people.

I was like most New Yorkers; the Trade Center was a place you knew. I worked Seven World Trade Center when it was being built, and then I worked on it for months and months and months on a rehab, which is when you refit floors or portions of a building for a new client, or have to lift and install new mechanical systems. I knew the underground PATH station and the shopping malls underneath there. When I worked in Battery Park City we used to go to a bar after work on the forty-fourth floor of one of the Towers. It was great because you could look out the window and see the job you were working on.

That’s why I was thinking the number of casualties was going to be catastrophic, horrific. Core columns are denser and heavier and more robust than exterior columns because they carry the load of the building. I’ve worked with single columns that weighed more than 90 tons. There were massive, massive columns in the Towers and the destruction they would cause in a collapse would be horrible, which turned out to be true. They were rectangular, maybe four foot by a foot and a half, about two stories tall, and weighed 60 tons each. And there were hundreds of them.
I walked back from Times Square. By this time the job was pretty much shut down. I grabbed my partner, Hughie Manley, and another guy, Dutch, and another engineer named Jerry. We all laced up and said, “We’re going downtown.”

I wasn’t thinking about running cranes down there yet. I just knew they were going to need help, period. Especially once the North Tower collapsed.

Once we started to walk downtown, we passed a building that had a cherry picker out front — a small mobile crane. One of the guys said, “Let’s hot-wire it.” I went up to a cop and asked, “Do you mind if we steal it and take it downtown?”

He told us to go ahead, but then the contractor showed up and freaked out so we just kept walking. Down in Greenwich Village somewhere, I said, “Look, we better get something to eat because once we go in…There’s nothing there anymore.”

I’ve always been laid back. I never tell anybody what to do or anything like that. But while we were sitting at this pizza place I said to every guy with me, “You really better think about whether you want to go in or not. You’re going to see things you’re going to remember the rest of your life.”
I don’t know what compelled me to go, but I knew that I had to. I just wanted to help.

It was a time of such chaos and indecision. I was single and didn’t have a family to worry about. My girlfriend Jo-Ann was in South Jersey and I couldn’t get there anyway. All I knew was that I had to go there and damned if I wasn’t. The cops weren’t going to stop me; no one was going to stop me.

Charlie Vitchers

All of the people that I was with had already made up our minds: we were going downtown. But we were told to go back over to the St. Moritz and hang out and wait to hear from our boss at Bovis, Jim Abadie.

About 1 o’clock Abadie called. Bovis was already working on a hotel near the Trade Center in Battery Park City, doing the final fit outs and finish work, getting ready for the grand opening in just a couple of weeks. Abadie wanted to know who was willing to go down to the Trade Center and help out. He said there was a bus for Bovis leaving from the Javits Center over by the Lincoln Tunnel, and for us to get down there, look for the group of Bovis guys, and then just follow whatever directions.
I just grabbed my knapsack and said, “I’m ready, man. I’m out of here.”

I walked over to the Javits Center but there was no bus. Nothing was set up yet. But everybody there was like “one for all, all for one,” and started walking downtown, either individually or with whatever group of guys they came with.

I walked down West Street toward the Trade Center but the Military Police stopped me. They said, “You can’t go this way.”

I go, “I’m with Bovis, I have my hardhat.”

They said, “We don’t care who you’re with, you’re not going any farther.”

So I said, okay, and started heading east where I ran into more MPs. By about 5 o’clock, I was about a quarter mile away from the Trade Center. I had a clear view down Washington Street of Building Seven, which was on the north edge of the site. All forty-seven stories were on fire. It was wild. The MPs said the building was going to collapse. I said, “Nah, I don’t know.” And then all of a sudden I watched the building shake like an earthquake hit it, and the building came down.

And I just said, “Holy shit.”

The MPs that had been there were no longer there. The demarcation line that was set up was gone. So I kept walking.

I saw a guy with a Bovis hat that I didn’t know and he told me, “We’re supposed to meet here, we’re waiting for Jim Abadie.” By now, it’s around 7 o’clock. It was starting to get dark. I had spent six hours just walking the streets.

Finally someone came down with Bovis letterhead stationery and cut out the letterhead, put it in a little plastic I.D. tag, passed them out and told us the Bovis trailer was set up at One World Financial Center, on the southwest corner of the site.

“Try and get down there,” was what they told us.

All morning, all through the afternoon and into the evening, virtually the entire population of lower Manhattan streamed silently away from the Trade Center. Thousands of New Yorkers trudged northward, glancing back nervously to stare in disbelief at the growing cloud of smoke hanging over the city, wondering if there were still more attacks to come. The rest of the nation — indeed much of the world — huddled before their televisions, as coverage of the carnage looped again and again and again.

Thousands, however, made their way in the opposite direction, pushing against the tide, dodging the hastily assembled security cordon. They were firemen and policemen, emergency services personnel, construction workers. And there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of average citizens, driven by an innate need to do something, anything. To respond.

What they found was devastation beyond comprehension. It was bedlam.

Bobby Gray

Up around Greenwich Street, north of Chambers it was a mess. There were probably thousands of people there. You could hardly see. There was paper and dust on the streets, all the fallout from the collapse of the Towers.

At the corner of Chambers and West Street, about a quarter mile north of the North Tower, the FDNY had set up a temporary command station under the pedestrian bridges — just a couple of fire trucks and some FDNY commanders. They were wearing white shirts and were surrounded by firefighters, so I knew they were in a position of authority. Down by the Trade Center, I could even see some columns from the Towers impaled in the ground.

There was more chaos than control. People were frantic, but except for the fire radios, I remember it being pretty quiet. Firefighters were walking into the area from the Trade Center, covered with dust.
I spotted Mike Marrone from Bovis Lend Lease. He had been the general super when I had worked on the Trump Tower, the tallest residential building in the world. He saw me and said, “Stick around. I’m going to need you.”

Suddenly we saw firemen running and yelling, “Seven’s going to go, seven’s going to go!” Seconds later, Building Seven is gone.

I watched the southeast corner of the roof kind of buckle and then the building came straight down. Clouds of dust rolled and blew down the side streets like a hurricane going horizontally. A lot of people ran. I couldn’t. I was standing on the street about two blocks away, frozen.

Charlie Vitchers

When I finally got to the Trade Center my initial reaction was to see if I could find anybody alive. But instead I did my own walk-around assessment and went completely around the whole site. I couldn’t find Albany Street, where the Bovis trailer was. Nothing looked the same. I didn’t recognize anything south of Vesey Street. The bridge over West Street that connected the World Financial Center to the Trade Center was down. Steel columns — what we call “sticks” — from Tower One were impaled right in the middle of West Street, sticking 60 feet up out of the ground. Nothing was recognizable. Everything was just one big pile of debris and there was almost no ambient light, just a little from some emergency lights in buildings around the site and from police and fire vehicles on the perimeter. You couldn’t even tell where the open plaza was that had been between the two Towers. It just didn’t really seem real. I just walked around and said, “Where the hell am I?”

Firemen were already up on the pile. There were thousands of people there, bucket brigades with a couple hundred people in them snaking all over the place.

I tried to find Albany Street because I knew where the 1010 Firehouse was from working down there. But I couldn’t find it. I mean it was there, but I couldn’t find it. On Liberty Street I saw a taxi cab completely covered with debris, impaled with stone and steel from the Tower. Half of the front was crushed into the debris pile. The rear end of the taxi was sticking up in the air and the left tail light was blinking.

And the smoke. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The wind would blow and all of a sudden you’d be in a cloud of dust and smoke, you’d have to stop and crouch down low to figure out where the hell you were walking.

When night fell, it was totally disorienting, eerie. It was like looking at downtown Manhattan in a blackout.

There were no streetlights.

There was nothing.

Copyright © 2006 by Glenn Stout

Friday, September 2, 2016

One Swing: From Big Pfft to Big Papi


(This column appeared in the July edition of Boston Baseball)

They say success has a thousand fathers and failure is in orphan, so I guess it makes sense now that everyone claims Big Papi as their own flesh and blood.  Ortiz came to the Red Sox as a free agent in 2003, absolutely unheralded, one of about eight or ten players thrown up against the lineup card on the dugout wall to fill the club’s DH slot, but at the time he was hardly the consensus pick – guys like Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand and a host of others that spring seemed more likely to stick. Ortiz did not win the job so much as it fell to him in May through the failures of just about everyone else, particularly when the first ever round of PED testing began to winnow the field. If he hadn’t started hitting the Sox might have let their pitchers bat.

Of course, we all know now what happened next.  Ortiz didn’t just hit, but that summer hit like he had never hit before. And ever since then a lot of those fathers have boasted their DNA made the difference. Theo Epstein, Grady Little, Josh Byrnes, Dave Jauss, Bill James, and any other number of scouts and lesser known number crunchers have claimed clairvoyance in anticipating that Ortiz was destined to become something akin to the second coming of Yaz, Ted Williams, and the Bambino. Wisely, these thousand fathers have since forgotten their advocacy of guys like Giambi, Hillenbrand and the other orphans they abandoned on the curb.

Well, the fact is that in reality no one saw anything because, well, there was nothing there to see. In parts of six seasons with the Twins, covering 52 at bats at Fenway Park, Big Papi was more like Big Pfft. He collected only 11 hits, his batting average a paltry .212, with, ahem, 19 strikeouts. A small sample size, to be sure, but not entirely insignificant.

Ah, but the power!  That’s what they must have seen, right?  Papi probably knocked a lot of seat backs out in those 11 hits, right?

Uh … no.  From the start of his big league career in 1997 thru 2002, before joing the Red Sox Big Pfft hit (drum roll, please) …. ONE home run at Fenway Park.

That solitary dinger came on September 7, 2000, as the Sox desperately (not really) tried to catch the Yankees and keep pace with Cleveland for the wild card berth.  You might recall that the Sox, under Jimy Williams and Dan Duquette, conceded the division title to the Yankees on September 11 that year and started playing rookies, only to see New York win only three of their last 18 games. Boston then finished only two and a half games out, missing out on a division title theirs for the taking.

Ramon Martinez pitched for the Sox that September afternoon, and Pedro’s older brother was not enjoying his sibling’s success. In fact, he often couldn’t get out of the first inning. In his previous four starts he had given up TWO first-inning grand slams.

This day was no different.  No major league pitcher had ever given up three first-inning grand slams in a season before, and Martinez took aim at the record from the start, opening the contest by giving up singles to Jay Canizaro, Cristian Guzman, and Matt Lawton, legends all.  Next came Ron Coomer, who folded under the pressure of sending Ramon to Cooperstown and struck out.

Up came Big Pfft, his Mighty Casey moment.

Martinez managed to throw four pitches that stayed in the park, bringing the count to 2-2, before reaching for immortality.  The next pitch was a fastball, belt high, tailing back over the plate. Ortiz swung and the ball sailed high and far, landing about 390 feet from home, three rows deep in the right field belly, Sox outfielder Darren Lewis tumbling into the crowd as he tried to make the catch. Yet when recently asked about it by a colleague, Ortiz drew a big fat blank. Huh? Even he doesn’t remember it. But on that day, Big Pfft became Big Papi in Fenway Park for the first time, a blast which not only set a record for Ramon, but was also the first grand slam in Ortiz’s career.

Somewhat improbably, Martinez gave up yet another home run, this time to Corey Koskie, putting the Twins up 5-0. Then, his place in history secure, Ramon retired 16 of the next 17 hitters. The Sox stormed back and he left the mound to a standing ovation as Boston went on to win, 11-6.

And Big Papi? Certainly, now that he found his range in Fenway, he must have struck fear in the hearts of Boston pitchers. That’s the reason the Sox plucked him from the scrap heap after the Twins released him following the 2002 season, right?

Nah. Papi went hitless the rest of the game and started something of a streak himself.  After that first inning home run, until he stepped in the batter’s box as a member of the Red Sox three years later, in his next 25 at bats as a visitor in Fenway, he was back to being Big Pfft. 

He collected only one more hit at Fenway Park, and in 2002 struck out in 8 of 11 appearances, his worst record, by far, in any ballpark over that time period. Then, in 2003, he put on a Boston uniform and something miraculously and magically changed.

Must have been that dirty water.

Glenn Stout’s latest book is The Selling of the Babe. See www.glennstout.net.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

GAME OVER

(from 2003)

Funny, how this game grows on you.

This spring I followed in a long tradition of paternal guilt and helped coach my daughter’s seven and eight-year-old softball team, although I’m not sure if either “coach” or “softball” were the right words, at least at the beginning.  But there was no question about one thing; those girls were definitely seven and eight-years-old.

I realized this immediately at our first practice.  For the first time ever, I was surrounded by players who had longer hair than I did and wore butterfly earrings and sparkly sneakers.  Two, maybe three, put the glove on the correct hand every single time and held the bat with the knob end down.  These were obviously our “cagey veterans.”  Another tip off was that these grizzled few chewed bubble gum, wore braids and didn’t have to ask what a shortstop was.

For some reason, in our town little girls bat against live pitching (thrown by the coaches), whereas the boys, with their delicate constitutions and big league dreams, hit off a tee.

I was sure this spelled disaster.  After all, I had spent the spring pitching to my daughter and then picking up the ball after she missed it and ran around the bases anyway.  The kid can read Harry Potter like a fiend but thrown objects seemed like something from another planet.

But that first day she dug in and swung at the first pitch and hit the enormous bright yellow ball with all her might – directly into her face.

A scream, then tears, and, I was certain, psychological damage that would someday cost me thousands.  But then a funny thing happened.  Peer pressure. She got back in and that was the only time all year a tear was spilled on the field. Well, almost.

After a few “practices” (although it was really impossible to call them that since practice denotes improvement), the big day arrived.  Uniforms!  And a parade!

Up until then the girls spent most of their time standing around looking bored and waiting for a ball (“Please, God”) to be hit.  But put uniforms on them and march them in a parade and the real goal, giggles, start right up.  I canceled the time-share for the psychiatric couch.

Then the games began. Everybody bats and plays all over the place and when the last batter hits, everybody gets to race around the bases, which all they really want to do anyway.  No one keeps score – a good thing – since not even Bill James can add that fast.

But even when you are seven and eight-years-old, you get up for the game.  In practice, no one had ever fielded a ball and thrown a runner out.  On the rare occasion when both fielding and throwing took place, the rest of the equation, a never before seen skill called “catching” was also required.  I figured the odds of all three happening in succession, at the right base, before the runner got there, were about on par with the Red Sox winning the World Series.

This too, may now be a possibility.  For in the heat of the game, these little girls who couldn’t run, catch, throw, field, hit or hit with power, all had the that unspoken sixth tool, the really big one that makes the all others seem really dumb.  They played.  And then they made the plays, hitting, fielding, catching, and throwing, just like real players.

Okay, not very often, but often enough so at the end of the first three-inning game, which only took approximately seventeen hours during a driving rainstorm while I tried to stay upright and awake, my daughter said, “Daddy, that game seemed like it only took a minute.”

She was right, of course, because when you are seven and having fun and cheering and running around the bases and wearing a uniform and BEAMING every time you do something right, like stop at first base, time does fly.  That’s what happens when you PLAY ball, which is something each one of these kids could do better from the start than any of us could have hoped to teach them.

But we were moving away and had to miss the last week of the season.  That made me sad, because I liked seeing all those smiley faces and tying all those shoes and making bad jokes while giving everybody “high-fives” from the coach’s box.  And along the way every single time they played they all got better and even better than that, had more fun.

It wasn’t until after our last game that anyone cried again.  The girls knew we were leaving and somebody made a cake and brought brownies and soda and all the girls signed one of those big yellow softballs in their very best handwriting and gave it to me.

I was afraid my daughter might start bawling, but she had fun to the end, giggling and still playing while saying goodbye to friends she would never see again, little girls that I will never, ever forget.

I didn’t let them see, but the only tears were mine.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Save: Baseball


 

by Glenn Stout
(From Boston Baseball May 2016)

 

It is a balm, it is a salve, it can save.

This is what baseball does.  When we need it most, when there is pain, or fear, or even just loneliness, there is baseball, always baseball.

April to October, it is the best friend on the other end of the phone, across the table, at the other end of the couch.  It’s that letter in the mailbox, the email from the past, the text, the call from someone forgotten that says “Watcha doing? Wanna hang out? Why don’t ya come over? We can watch the game.”

When everything else is overwrought and overbearing, baseball is not. Baseball is quiet, even in the cheering.  When the world is fast, when the clock spins too quickly and life careens out of control, baseball just unfolds. It lolls on the ground, warms up and plays catch.  It steps out of the box, looks around, paces, shakes off a sign, knocks dirt from its shoes, adjusts its cap, claps its hand and spits,  waves to the pen, checks the infielders, puts a hand up to call time, takes a deep breath, steps off and re-sets. And when the world is slow, when days and hours drag, baseball marks time, starts with infinity, jogs to position, plays pepper, shags flies, turns two, chases after fungoes, makes the lineup, throws through, goes around the horn, plays ball, bears down. It fills the scorebook, the line score, moving station to station, pitch by pitch, strikes and balls and interminable fouls, station to station, one base at a time, the lineup turning over, the innings adding up, the shadow moving across the diamond, 27 ticks to a side until it ends in a score, a result, a win or a loss and then, the instant it is tallied, baseball starts again. Tomorrow is the next starting pitcher and no matter what, the game starts out as a tie, the tally 0-0, and anything can happen.  

It lives at night, in the air, on the dial, on cables’ upper channels, in black and white and color, and in the minds’ eye, memory, always glorious and green. It’s there in the morning, in the paper, on the screen, hidden in the box score, whispering from the crawl at the bottom of the screen.

Sometimes it stays up late, talking, shuffling cards, playing solitaire.  It takes a nap, follows the sun, chases the seasons, stops for naps, stirs, then gets up for a sandwich. It lets you talk, allows attention to slip, puts up with conversation, with a kid on your lap, a dog at your feet, ice cream on your chin, with a warm beer, with sunburn, with the lawn being mowed, the grill firing up, the sun setting low and the fire flies flashing.

It pops cups in the stands, mouths out the anthem, catches the peanuts, and razzes the ump. It speaks Spanish on one side, Japanese on another, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a slide and a scuffle, a catcall, a curse, a slur and a cheer.

It sits in the library, in yearbooks and guides, tablets and programs, newsprint and gamers, in clips and on cards, in a box in the basement, a shelf on the wall, a ball in the glove and a bat in the corner. Blood on the elbow, grass on the knee, dirt on your hands and gum on your cap. It smells like pine tar and popcorn, hot dogs and home, neatsfoot and leather, horsehide and dirt, fastballs and curves. It’s a sore arm, a stinger, a strawberry, or a scrape, a Charley horse or scar.

Hold it in your hand, it holds you right back and never lets go.

 

Glenn Stout is an author and editor. His website is www.glennstout.net