Of course, this scholarly revolution never came to pass in the majors—in 2012, only 4.3 per cent of big-league players had earned a four-year college degree—but Mathewson nonetheless helped change the perception of the game. His writings advanced the idea that baseball players aren’t empty vessels in the field, operating primarily through instinct and raw talent. They are analytical thinkers who must be able to execute and amend strategies on the fly in order to outsmart their competitors.
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I’m extremely amused. And I want to play.
314.0: The time traveler’s husband.
I want to keep getting better.
"Don’t tell me that you’ve been staring at that for sixteen hours."
In fact, within the last sixteen hours, I had worked a shift for a temp gig, went out for lunch with Clara, troubleshooted sending out the weekly e-mail newsletter for my church for the first time (Mailchimp, you are on my hit list), went over my class syllabi and made a mental note of how much I need to catch up on (I’m still trying to crawl out of the hole), and contemplated the plight of Syria with the pastor of my church. It had been a full day in the real world, which today had seemed rich with endless opportunities to be busy, even productive, which I guess I was, and also was possessed of a continuing wealth of friendships. Yet here I am.
As always, the imaginary boyfriend glides effortlessly up the steep stairway of our section in the view reserve — nosebleeds — section of Our Ballpark, the imaginary duplicate of AT&T Park. In fact, just last night, Linc’s real-life counterpart was really there, in The Ballpark, making such a name for himself that his publicity team decided to stir up a little electricity on his Facebook page.
"Do you even use Facebook?" I ask Linc, not without some sharpness in my voice. "Like, do you have a private account that only your friends can see? And if so, what name do you use?"
Without warning, I’m shaking with laughter: “Do you use your middle name?!”
His fans worth their salt know his middle name.
Linc takes a seat next to me. “That’s not nice.”
But the smile lines around his face are a direct mirror image of his counterpart. There is something about his face and his eyes that, yes, exudes a guileless nature, which is troublesome since he can very easily conceal darker complexities — but his appeal is not just a matter of being cute or hot. What I have always found appealing about the idea of a significant other is that he ought to have a face I can come home to; a face that is home, that is so familiar that I would never tire of seeing it at home, the grocery store, church — all through the minutiae of life. He has that kind of face.
For me his middle name has always been a source of comedy. As a half-Filipino, his other half is white, and with a middle name like that I have sometimes wondered in bemusement if that side of the family came from the midwest somewhere, or perhaps even the south. Also, it is a name he shares with a creature related to one of my favorite Disney characters. But I don’t bring this up to him, and anyway, I can’t be sure that it has even crossed the mind of his counterpart.
"What? Your middle name makes me laugh," I say, suppressing the last few breaths of amusement.
"I can see that."
I clear my throat, and suddenly I’m less jovial, although not entirely deadpan. “When I was in the fourth grade, there was this candy called a Caramello bar and it had this commercial with a jingle that went —” here, I produce a singsony, off-key voice that attempts to replicate the original tune “— STREEEETTCH IT OUT, CARAMELLO.”
Linc stares in alarm. I ignore him.
"My classmates, especially the guys, loved teasing me about it," I say. "They’d sing it to me, surround me with their mean little dancing, the whole thing. Obviously, it was a play on my last name, but they were also calling me fat. Which I was."
Not without some wistfulness, I sigh deeply. “Today that kind of teasing might probably be called bullying. I don’t know. Those guys were irritating, and I won’t lie: they made me feel bad. But it wasn’t the end of the world. They could actually be kind of nice to me sometimes.”
Suddenly, Linc’s finger is jabbing at my gut. My reflex is to grab his finger and then fling away his arm, except that he barely moves. There was no chance that I would physically overcome a professional starting pitcher. At any rate, my gut is heinously apparent because the outfit that I’m wearing here in Our Ballpark is a white v-neck shirt that is a size large but form fitting. I’m also in black slacks and matching work shoes. This is also my outfit in real life, having just come back from work and extricated myself from my dress shirt because of how sunny and hot it is downtown, where I worked my shift. As for what Linc is wearing, once, I saw a photo of his counterpart speaking at a press conference wearing a beanie and a jacket. This is how Linc appears here.
I’m exhausted. The temp gig that I’ve worked is a rather prominent industry conference. The work itself is mostly without joy. Although I’d been lucky to get good coworkers and a reasonable supervisor, many of the other authority figures as well as the attendees seem only too happy to remind you of your place on the food chain. At one point, I was helping out some of the other event staff when an attendee approached us and, thinking that she was making a well-meaning joke, exclaimed: “Why are you all dressed like that? You look like shift workers!”
Well, yeah. Har har.
It is the kind of incident, the kind of work, that has been the impetus for my return to school. The other reason, of course, is Linc.
The usual story for an adult fan of sports is that they know history, statistics, and strategy. But having come into baseball so late in life, it affected me differently. Certainly, I am interested in history, statistics, and strategy but I have and continue to feel an even stronger curiosity about the impact of baseball on the human experience. I know how absurd that must sound, a hilarious attempt at profundity — in fact, long before I was a baseball fan, I fancied myself a writer.
What has fascinated me about baseball is the athlete, and this fascination has also extended to an appreciation of other sports, although I happily claim to be a fan of only baseball. While I have never been athletic, have no plans to even engage in any casual athleticism outside of spectatorship, I admire the athlete’s thinking and I have often wondered how I can implement their drive into my own decidedly non-athletic goals. Since 2009, the question has been: what if I thought about my life, my career, like Tim Lincecum?
"I haven’t," I steadily reveal to Linc, "been staring at that for sixteen hours. That’s just how long the post has been up, dummy."
"I know that."
Another jab. Suddenly, his arms are all around me. This is a perfect moment for us to kiss, except that we don’t. We don’t kiss, even in my own imagination, because I cannot imagine what it must be like to kiss Tim Lincecum.
His playful tackling dies down and we settle against the backs of our respective seats. Typically, we have met here in Our Ballpark at night. But this time, I’ve chosen an unobstructed day, the sun and the heat both out and burning brightly as in the real world at that very moment.
Our laughter dies down, too.
He slides his hand over mine. In fact, even while he was tackling me, my eyes never left the image on the scoreboard monitor.
"It hurts," I say in my realest voice.
What I mean by “my realest voice” is that, in real life, my voice has been kind of hoarse, as if I have a cold or have been screaming. This is probably because of how loudly I have had to talk during two recent dinner outings at very busy restaurants, and I blame my slow recovery on the ravages of being 31.
It is also a voice of heartbreak.
"It’s like I’ve been in this amazing dream for the last four years," I tell him. "And it’s almost over."
Linc says, “How do you know I’m leaving?”
I sigh sharply. “Buddy, would your publicity team post something like that unless the rumors were true? Look at the wording on that post.”
"CSN wrote that post, buddy."
"And your publicity team re-posted it!"
My head drops. It has become too much to keep staring at the monitor.
"I know how it goes," I say, pouting now. "This is baseball. This is your career. Still."
The hoarseness is nearly gone, replaced with an almost total absence of voice.
"Couldn’t have done it without you," I tell him, shutting my eyes. Oh shit. Not this.
"You did it yourself. Baseball just, you know… it just happened to come along."
"Best thing that ever happened to me."
I feel the sharp path carved first over my left cheek and then my right. Once the tears start, they are indefinite.
315.0: It’s getting late.
Yesterday, I had to manage a sticky situation that, in the end, was neither sticky nor required that much management. I merely had to come to my senses.
About a month ago, a friend’s husband sent out an invitation to a surprise party he was planning for his wife’s — my friend’s — birthday. My friend Valerie isn’t someone whom I’ve mentioned often here because we drifted apart — not for reasons that are negative because, on the contrary, we are still good friends. But life took us in separate directions, and her life took her outside of San Francisco, into the suburbs, where she has raised a family, replete with a second child due sometime in November. I might have missed that entire second pregnancy if I had not gone to her surprise party.
The stereotype about people who live in any big city — New York City and San Francisco are the worst offenders — is that you can never get them to come out of the city. Especially if they don’t have a car. But even the ones who have a car are known to make a big deal about venturing into the metropolitan area. I have to say, not without quite a bit of thought, as well as experience, that this is more or less true. For a long time, I had believed that, without a car, getting on BART or Caltrain or any commute that involved leaving the city was just too much.
This is ludicrous. As I was commuting to the furthest reaches of BART on a scorching Sunday that saw wins for the Giants and the Niners — stellar birthday presents for Valerie, a lifelong fan of all Bay Area sports — something clicked in my head like in the baseball origin story that I am now prone to reciting as if it were holy scripture — how, one day in 2009, I had sat down in AT&T Park and suddenly realized what I was missing. This past Sunday, maybe it was, like that day in 2009, merely the sunny weather that was making me feel romantic. Or maybe it was age, and I was warming up and loosening up over the years. But I firmly realized certain things: that the time and expense of commuting to BART isn’t all that different from driving a car, except without the hassle of car ownership, and that I had believed for far too long that going out into the suburbs was like going into another universe. It is not. In fact, if San Francisco is, as Herb Caen once said, heaven, then the Bay Area must be wonderland.
What I regret most about not having seen Valerie on a regular basis is missing out on so much of her life and our friendship. I missed her first kid’s first few years. I missed barbecues at her house and sometimes outings that I ludicrously deemed were too far away. When her husband secretly sent out the invitation to her surprise party, I was all too happy to accept it.
Except that on Sunday, I almost didn’t go. For one thing, the commute still felt like it would be a hassle. I was supposed to get a ride with a mutual friend, who had ended up getting the dates wrong and was, in fact, out of town. So I tried to call another mutual friend who, because of another commitment, wasn’t going. That just left me and public transit, but there was also another factor: a temp gig that required me to rise at 4am the next morning. I didn’t know how long they were going to celebrate. I very nearly delivered my regrets.
When I finally got on BART, it hit me how over it I was: over disconnecting myself from Valerie, perhaps other possibilities as well. Most of all, there was Valerie. Besides the commute, another reason that was hindering me from fully standing behind my commitment was money, and how little of it I always seemed to have. The surprise party was actually a dinner at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. I had only been there once before, years ago, when Valerie and her husband were still dating. I remember tackling a deliriously glorious dessert called a Pizookie. But going there now, in the career and financial state that I was in, seemed insurmountable. If I had to get my own meal, and then pay for a birthday meal on top of it, then I had to say no. Didn’t I?
Valerie was worth it: the commute, the shuffling around of my budget (such as it is). I am not trying to romanticize what I did on Sunday or make something heroic out of an entirely commonplace act like going to someone’s birthday dinner. But while I am trying to steer clear of aggrandizement, what I will unabashedly proclaim is my mastery of commitment, not merely to the invite but to Valerie, to my friends, to the things that make life worth living.
* * *
I had some interesting conversations with my friends after posting my entry about being depressed. Someone suggested that I try to find a lower-cost alternative to my therapist of seven years whom I had to stop seeing because of cost. Let me just reiterate that my therapist was already giving me a rock-bottom rate (compared to the usual pricing of private therapists). I found her when she was still a grad student and we continued our partnership when she went private. The trouble with finding another therapist is that when you have a good connection with your shrink, it is more than just a partnership. I am an introvert; for those of you who believe in horoscopes or otherwise see some merit in them, in the Chinese zodiac I am a dog. It is incredibly exhausting to invest energy in other people; as well, I am hyper-observant about the world, and possibly too much “in my head” although I would like to think that I have become much better with that as I get older. (Even in college, Valerie was good at bringing me out of my head.)For the long, lingering consideration that I undertake in selecting who to let into my life, I am certain that I have missed out on some wonderful relationships. But I don’t regret whom I’ve ended up with as friends; this is why I would rather endure this indefinite bout of malaise on my own than find a new shrink.
Commitment is something that for a long time has been top of mind. You would not expect a male middle school student to think of such things, but then again, you would not expect him to watch movies like Sleepless In Seattle and Love Affair. At the same time that I lost myself in these films, Pop and Ma were going through tough times. Theirs was a relationship so tumultuous that, where other kids might have either become irreparably withdrawn or turned outward to bad influences, I did withdraw — to movies, specifically to romances. Reality was hard but, even in middle school, I knew that it was inescapable. I watched the movies that I did not because I wanted to believe that they were real, but to gather myself in the real world — to pick up and move on. The fandom for Tim Lincecum is really only the most recent incarnation of this coping mechanism. But it’s certainly fun to daydream.
Besides, dating him would probably be a nightmare. Out of nowhere, I came to that conclusion while reading this fairly recent interview. The comments section is revealing in how convinced they are that the interview is prophetic: next season, Timmy will be playing somewhere else. Of course, this could be typical late season speculation — particularly in a season without a World Series run — and for all I know March will come and go with Timmy’s place on the roster in tact. Still, I am the kind of baseball fan who vacillates between being logically aware of the realities of baseball strategy, the business of baseball and, as one commenter put it in only the robust eloquence found in social media, “a 15-year old with a crush.” I asked Selma about the article and I found her reply a little bit startling.
"He sounds wishy-washy," she remarked, and went on: "A weigh-the-options kind of guy."
"What’s wrong with that?" I asked, not without a little playful jab in my voice.
"It sounds like he’s avoiding commitment."
Selma is not a baseball fan. She’s been to a few games with her husband but 1) she is not that much of a fan of sports in general and 2) the one sport that she has consistently gravitated toward, even if it was only because of her husband’s influence, is hockey. I have to admit that I, too, see the appeal in hockey: the brute strength and brute strategy, while the opposite of everything I love about baseball, is really quite hot.
As a non-fan of baseball, Selma is probably not aware that baseball operates behind a visage of seeming non-commitment. To understand this, all you have to do is listen to any interview given by a manager when he is being pressed about strategy, especially when it comes to player performance and decisions about the lineup. Yet for some reason I am not able to entirely rule out Selma’s outsider perspective.
Maybe Timmy is, in fact, really not great at commitment. Or maybe he puts on an air of it for show, because that is how baseball players are supposed to act (and, to a lesser extent, because how Geminis act). In any case, the reason why it hit me that dating him might be a challenge (OK, calling it a “nightmare” was me being melodramatic) is because a person who is intimately involved with him might always wonder if they are good enough. The drive for perfection is not something that athletes are traditionally skilled at separating from life and from the field. How many spouses of athletes have found themselves constantly wondering if that little comment their significant other made is a joke or an indictment? Wherever Timmy’s career — and I don’t use that word lightly, because it is a serious word and it is a notion that must be cultivated as seriously as a crop or the soul — takes him, I will at least know that these last four years have, because of him, whether directly or indirectly (mostly indirectly) for me have unfolded in ways that might not have unfolded if neither he nor Giants baseball had ever come into my life. I might not find myself back in school, polishing up my rhetoric, and drafting a research paper currently entitled “Homosexual identity in baseball”.
Thank you, Tim.
|Joe:||What are you doing here? I haven't had an Our Ballpark fantasy in ages. I'm over it.|
|Linc:||No, you're not. Otherwise I wouldn't be here.|
|Joe:||You're sitting next to me in my apartment. I always meet you in Our Ballpark.|
|Linc:||I changed the rules.|
|Joe:||You can't change the rules. You're pretend!|
|Linc:||What I am, is awesome.|
|Joe:||Anyway, you're only here because I have the apartment to myself for once.|
|Linc:||How do you handle that anyway, man? You've basically had no privacy for a whole year.|
|Joe:||I make do -- oh no, what happened? What's an incomplete pass?|
|Linc:||You're only watching this to understand me better.|
|Joe:||I'm watching this because becoming a Giants fan four years ago has made me more appreciative of sports, particularly local sports.|
|Linc:||Have you ever thought about becoming a speechwriter?|
|Joe:||What is that supposed to mean?|
|Linc:||You deliver some really good canned lines sitting here on a sofa with your arms crossed next to your imaginary boyfriend.|
|Joe:||I am ending this conversation. As I told you, I'm over the whole imaginary boyfriend thing.|
|Linc:||So why am I still so convincing? You know that this is probably the way he would talk to you if he were actually sitting here.|
|Joe:||Can you do me a favor and dematerialize or collapse your atoms or whatever it is that imaginary boyfriends do when they go away?|
|Linc:||Not as long as you're home alone. You can't help yourself.|
|Joe:||I don't like that accusing tone.|
|Joe:||If you're going to stick around, then you may as well make yourself useful. What is that thing?|
|Joe:||That thing on the side of the field that looks like a Google Places pin.|
|Linc:||Oh my God.|
333.1: Required reading.
You’re still the prettiest of all my wives.
—Charlie Blackwell, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Today I finished reading American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a 555-page hardcover that I finished reading in a week. I don’t say this to brag about my literary prowess (although I must say that it isn’t often that I pick up such a hefty tome, much less breeze through one); nor do I mention the page count because it bears a striking resemblance to your uniform number (and it’s actually 558 with the acknowledgements pages).
My completion of this book is significant because it’s probably the most important entry in my baseball syllabus — and to think that I might have never read it had I not randomly found myself in conversation with my friends about Barney the dog! American Wife ranks with, if doesn’t actually overshadow, Ball Four and The Dreyfus Affair. These and the many other entries in the syllabus, a kind of unofficial mental reading list that I’ve kept since 2009, and should probably write down one of these days, have helped me sail through the stormy currents of reflection into which baseball has brought me. Although baseball has inspired me to read many books, not every book I read is necessarily part of the syllabus. For example, even though I liked Outliers enough to correlate it with my personal growth, I wouldn’t say that it’s part of the syllabus. One book that I’ve wondered about listing in the syllabus is The Brothers K, which is certainly a wonderful novel with elements of baseball woven into the narrative, but I’ve hesitated to put it on the syllabus as required reading. This might have something to do with how reading it was a shared experience: it was part of a book group at church, and while I adore my church book group, Ball Four, The Dreyfus Affair, and American Wife were works that I experienced on my own. I picked up these books and performed my own gleaning without the pressure of bantering or analyzing. The wordless, inarticulate sensations of feeling and reflection sufficed.
What you will hear the most about American Wife, should you decide to look into it, or even read it, is that it is a fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life; indeed, the book impressively mirrors the real-life career of George W. Bush, right on down to his ownership of a baseball team and subsequent two-term presidency. This faithful interpretation of the source material is impressive enough. But what really got to me are the insights into being a public figure, a first lady and, above all, a wife — whether or not Laura Bush ever actually thought, felt, or said any of these things, who’s to say? But I like to believe that there is some accuracy in the storytelling.
I have to apologize to you, Tim — yes, I am integrating again. In the unlikely event that these never-to-be-sents were ever a source of burden for you, then I’m sorry. Baseball 2.0 has always been about me and not about you — and how could it be, when I don’t know you? Even in the imagined conversations in Our Ballpark, everything was speculative, a guess, wild extrapolations from unreliable data. After finishing American Wife, it did cross my mind that maybe I should stop writing these never-to-be-sents, for real, instead of saying that I will and then inevitably coming back to them.
When I was in elementary school, I lived down the street from a little girl whose relationship to me can best be described as ”frenemy”. In the third grade, sometimes we enjoyed each other’s company and other times we hated each other’s guts. Today, that same little girl is now a wildly successful east coast executive whose seemingly fantastical life I am privileged to keep track of on Facebook, where she friended me some years ago and allowed me access to the pictures, postings, and other evidence of her adult life with which I have nothing to do. Neither of us could have envisioned that our lives would turn out like this — she an influential businesswoman and wife on one coast, me a pining writer on another — during that morning bus ride one fateful day when, annoyed over something smart alecky that she had muttered that made the other kids collectively laugh at my expense, I extracted a music album from my backpack and threw it at her. The cruel irony here Is that she was the one who lent me the album and I had been on the verge of returning it to her until she began to make fun of me. Instead of hitting her like I had intended in my wrath, the album landed on the aisle and the CD was tossed out. My frenemy gasped in horror and everyone rushed to help her pick it up.
"No, no!" she wheezed in a panic. "This belongs to my dad!"
"What do you mean it belongs to your dad?" I asked, nervously picturing her father, a man of formidable size whose accent to me made him sound vaguely like a Russian gangster.
"I took it out of his library without asking! He’s gonna kill me!"
She dug into her backpack and hurriedly took out her CD walkman and threw on her headphones as soon as she had shoved the disc inside. The other kids and I watched intently but, alas, after a few moments, she slumped against her seat and said in mourning: “I can’t get it to play. It’s broken.”
Another neighborhood girl, whose parents were acquaintances of mine by virtue of her being half-Filipino, turned to me, and to this day I still recall the frigid glower she directed at me as she said: “Nice job ruining her life.”
I was paralyzed with so much guilt that the offense I felt just minutes before didn’t matter anymore. Even in the third grade, I knew that I had gotten my frenemy — my friend — in trouble, and I fully believed what the other girl had said to me: I had ruined her life.
Whenever I have become aware of some hurt or offense that I have imparted upon another person in some way, I have always absorbed the impact along with them. This may not be apparent or even relevant in situations where the anger was spectacular and both sides merciless. But more often than not, I have reacted with debilitating empathy.
I will admit to something that might reasonably push me very near toward the realm of insane: not only do I believe in God, I believe in His plan. Cynicism is exhausting, and whenever I have been the most tired, I have believed that coincidences mean nothing and that the disparate events of life are connected by nothing more than chance and the rhythms of biological existence. Nevertheless, that cynicism has often been pushed back by a relentless faith in a God who maneuvers events according to His will. I believe in that stuff, Linc. I actually believe in that stuff because, yes, it helps me get through the day. It helps me make sense of a world within which I might otherwise live in permanently cynical exhaustion. That being said, I have been brought to American Wife for reasons as mystical as the unexpected formation of baseball in my life. Maybe one reason is for God to tell me that I need to shift all of my attention on concrete, tangible concerns, especially for the next few months in which those concerns will be plentiful. Yet one reason is made plain: to tell you I’m sorry.