Thursday, June 10, 2010

Last Pitch

I can still remember the last pitch.

My father was a fan, but not a big fan. No one in my family was, but baseball grabbed me when I was only three or four and never let go. If it was too dark to play ball when my father got home from work I would have a fit, so he installed floodlights in the backyard. Then, no matter how tired he was from working a 12 or 14 hour day in construction, we could still play ball.

Most of my memories of my father are somehow wrapped around a baseball - playing catch, him taking me to games or watching me pitch. It was the one way we really connected. But in high school I tore my rotator cuff and had to stop playing. We didn’t have as much to talk about after that.

Almost twenty years later my shoulder healed and I joined an adult league, one in Boston and later, another in Worcester County, where I then lived. For three or four years I was in both leagues and played forty, fifty games each summer, usually pitching and playing first or third.

I’d call home every week and for the first time since I was a kid my conversations with my father were wrapped around baseball again. I sent him the ball after I won my first game since I was 16- years old, and a T-shirt I got for making the league all-star team. I was as proud of each as of any book I’ve ever written, and so was he.

In April of 1996, the week my daughter was born, Pop was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had ignored the symptoms for too long and his doctor told him he had a year to live, give or take a week, and to enjoy the time he had. My mother had died a few years before and my father re-married an old family friend, the widow of a man my father had pulled from a burning plane when he was on the crash crew in the Navy. That July he and my stepmother loaded up the RV and he drove out for his final visit.

I had a ballgame, the last one of the year. I was new to my team and we were not very good and I had not been much help. We were playing a team that had already beaten us once and needed only to beat us again to make the playoffs.

Half our team didn’t even show up, but it was a beautiful summer Saturday morning and old Soldier’s Field in Douglas, Massachusetts sparkled like a postcard, dew on the grass glinting in the sun. My dad and stepmother, my wife and baby daughter, my brother, and our neighbors and their kids all sat together in the bleachers, half the crowd.

Before the game our manager muttered “We’re gonna get killed today.” For the first few innings it appeared as if he were right. We played like we did not want to be there and were trailing,5 - 0 in the fourth when I led off with a single, a soft line drive. From the bleachers I could hear his voice again. “Alright!”

That’s the only thing my father ever said at a game - “Alright!” I was happy to get a hit in front of him and some sloppy baseball netted us a couple runs to make it respectable. But when our pitcher put a few guys on in the bottom of the inning it looked hopeless. My manager waved me over from third and even though I had pitched in Boston two days before and my arm was still sore and my legs were shot, I took the ball anyway, just like my father had gone into the backyard all those evenings after working 14 hour days. I was his son. A pop-up, a strikeout and a groundball wrapped around a walk got us out of the inning.

Something happened. We started making impossible plays and improbable hits, rallying against one of the best pitchers in the league. I wiggled through the fifth and sixth, and in the bottom of the inning, down by one with runners on second and third, I bounced a single through the middle and now we led by a run and I needed only three outs for the win. “Alright!”

I had nothing but somehow got two outs and then, with runners on first and second, the batter hit a ground ball down the first base line. I sprinted over to field the ball and end the game.

It felt like someone hit the back of my leg with a ball peen hammer. I went down hard.  My first baseman picked up the ball. The batter raced to first on an infield hit, loading the bases, as my hamstring started to hemorrhage.

I tried to stand and fell. I couldn’t throw another pitch.

I saw him sitting in the stands and I pulled myself up.

Limping to the rubber, using all arm and one leg, I somehow got the count to 3-2. With two outs, a one-run lead, the bases loaded and all the runners moving, I threw the last pitch my father would ever see me throw, a fastball down and away.

Another grounder to my left. I reacted, but I was too late. My first baseman ranged into the hole to make the play.

I lurched toward first, muscle fibers popping with each stride. He flipped the ball ahead of me. I could hear the baserunner coming down the line as the winning run tore toward home.

The throw was wide. I stretched out toward first base and reached out with my bare hand. My hamstring exploded and I snatched the throw from the air. My foot, then the runner’s, hit the base and I fell, holding the ball tight in my fist.



That afternoon I sat on my front porch with my father, drinking beer, a bag of ice under my thigh, talking about the game. He told me he was not surprised I had stayed in and that we had won, that I still played the game the way I always had, hard, just like he had taught me.

He meant it. After this one small miracle I wanted to think there would be another, but I knew better. The following spring, one week before my daughter’s first birthday, only a few days before opening day, Pop was gone.

From June 11 thru June 16 - Father’s Day - Major League Baseball will support the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s Home Run Challenge. For more information about prostate cancer visit and talk with your health professional about prostate cancer testing. 
This column first appeared in slightly different form in Boston Baseball, June 2010. I re-post it every Father's Day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

How To Write Two Million Words…or so

Several months ago, in his farewell column in ESPN The Magazine, Rick Reilly noted that “My math says this column puts me over one million published words. And that doesn't count books (No. 11 coming up in May), screenplays (two), sonnets, ransom notes and quilts. This is one million too many for many citizens, but the fact remains.”

When I was younger this kind of statement that would send me into deep depression. When one wants to be a writer there is nothing more depressing than having someone quantify what you have not done. I recall being particularly dismayed when I learned that Jack Kerouac had written a million words by the age of thirty. When one has not written anything of merit - or at least published it – one million words seems like, well, one million words, a task so daunting as to be unachievable, like running around the world. One imagines that the writer of a million words must have the discipline of a monk, the typing skills of a graduate of Katie Gibbs, the supple imagination of a jazz musician, the stamina of a marathoner… and either a vow of poverty or a trust fund, because how would it ever be possible to both work and write?

I looked at myself and saw none of those qualities. I liked to have too much fun, laughing and hanging out in bars, and a small nerve problem in my hands made it impossible for me to touch type. The only thing I did every day – beyond the physical necessities - was wake up and read, probably so I would not have to confront the fact that I was not writing very much.

Despite this, in 1986 when I was in my late twenties, after writing in camera for years - mostly poetry - through some kind of dumb luck I finally started writing and publishing non-fiction. In an instant I went from “wanting to be a writer” to “being a writer” and a certain floodgate fell open.

It was not too many years later – I had just turned thirty, hence the accounting - when I sat down and discovered that, rather incredibly, almost accidentally, even I had written a million words. Now this was not a million published words, mind you – there were probably only about 100,000 of those at the time - but if I started in college and counted all the papers I had written and the notebooks I had filled up and scratched over, despite what I saw as my utter lack of discipline, a common imagination, questionable stamina, lack of a trust fund and a regular job that kept me nominally above the poverty line, even I had written a million words.

The realization was liberating beyond measure. Writers were not mysteries, and the act of writing was not some kind of secret sect to which I had no access. It did not entail following a schedule carved in stone, a muse, the ability to work until one fell asleep at the typewriter (a quaint thought…) or the proper pedigree.

No, I realized that most of writing entailed putting my ass in a chair, hitting deadlines and, most important of all, not being intimidated by the process. If I had written a million words by age thirty – and felt that I was just getting started at that – well, writing couldn’t be that hard.* This was something I could do.

I had also started running, and at about this time also realized that running around the world was also achievable as long as I did it in increments and did not let the goal overwhelm the process. For about ten years or so I probably averaged about forty miles a week, which totaled about 20,000 miles and put me on the brink of the running around the world total. And although I no longer run as far or as often, I have still kept it up for more than thirty years and at this point am probably closing in on my second global circumnavigation.

I only bring this up to underscore the point that even while writing a million words one need not stop doing everything else. In fact, I think it helps to do other things, to help turn the act of writing from something so precious that you freeze with anticipation in front of the keyboard into something as normal as brushing your teeth, a part of the daily fabric, not subject to any excuses. At the same time I continued to work full-time until 1993, helped raise my daughter from infancy (and with minimal daycare before school while my wife worked), played nearly 400 games of amateur baseball over nine seasons, learned to skate, ski, and kayak, cut my own wood, built my office, held public office, etc., etc., etc. This does not even include the vast amount of reading I have to do as part of my duties as Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing. And I won’t even get into the amount of time I’ve spent watching baseball or sitting in bars. I still feel completely undisciplined and think I should be much more productive than I am, but now, after nearly twenty-five years as a professional writer, including the last seventeen on a full time basis, when I add up my published output since 1986, I am closing in one two and a half million words. And that doesn't even include all those poems in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.

When I write that, it does not seem possible, yet there it is. And I hope at least one young writer might find some solace in the fact that if a stiff like me could write a couple million words, well, so can you.

So sit down and get cracking. As long as you start now, there is plenty of time.

Meanwhile, I think I'll take a nap.

P.S. And I still cannot touch type. I only use my thumbs, index fingers and, occasionally, middle fingers on each hand. But I do type at the speed I think.

Word Count:

Illustrated Biographies

Ted Williams: 40,000
Joe DiMaggio: 50,000
Jackie Robinson: 40,000

Red Sox Century: 200,000
Yankees Century: 225,000
The Dodgers: 225,000
The Cubs: 225,000

Nine Months at Ground Zero: 110,000

Young Woman and the Sea: 125,000

Fenway 1912: 140,000

Matt Christopher titles (39): 720,000

Good Sports titles (2): 36,000

BASW Forewords (21): 40,000

Misc work for hire books: 100,000

Articles: 100,000

Boston Baseball Columns: 80,000

TOTAL: 2,456,000

*Understand, I am not equating quantity with quality here. Rick Reilly is not Jack Kerouac and neither am I. All we have of Sappho are a few scant fragments, a few thousand words at most, and I would gladly trade my millions for her few. Believe me, I get that. But there was a time when Sappho was probably intimidated by the act of writing as well.