The View From Away: Navigating the land of hope and glory
Recently a high school friend emailed several of us from Cranbrook – a.k.a. The School That Dare Not Speak Its Name (thanks, Mitt) – looking for World Series tickets to see my once-beloved Detroit Tigers (curse you, Designated Hitter Rule, for turning the AL into a carnival sideshow).
I don’t know how I was supposed to help from Maine, but I’m glad he included me in an online conversation that meandered from this year to the great 1968 Detroit-St. Louis series that caused a brief cessation of hostilities in racially charged Detroit, and finally to baseball in general. I owe a lot to baseball for the role it has played in my life of taking the road less traveled.
Gas was under 20 cents a gallon when I went to my first Tigers game. The visiting shortstop, Luis Aparicio, was shagging flies during fielding practice. He drew a bead on a seemingly impossible get that was headed to our seats, about halfway down the third base line. He sprinted toward the warning track, made the catch on a dead run, went over the low wall and fell in a fan’s lap. He got up with a look on his face like he’d just pulled a baby out of a well. Did I mention this was fielding practice? I never saw anybody so happy doing something he was getting paid for.
I was young, but I wasn’t an idiot. I was the schoolyard shortstop who couldn’t see the ball until the last second because he didn’t know he needed glasses. The majors weren’t in my future. Fortunately, something else came along that I would run into a brick wall for: comedy. I had no idea how apt the brick wall comparison would be, especially when my passion became obscured by a lust for fame, a fool’s game if ever there was one.
The sharpest epiphany I ever had about the folly of chasing fame was also baseball-related, sort of. I wish it had happened earlier. It could have saved me a lot of anguish.
After flaming out as a stand-up comedian, while struggling to break into TV writing, I went to a print shop to copy an early spec script. The guy ahead of me was copying adult softball league schedules for the Burbank parks department, and he was wearing a World Series ring. They’re huge, by the way. And garish. Pimp garish. They’re also proof that you won the biggest prize in baseball. This guy had one, and now he was an assistant recreation director. Thinking I must have a kindred spirit, I pointed at the ring and said something lame about how the world pulls the rug out from under you.
Unlike me, he turned out to be remarkably at peace. To him it was always about doing the thing he loved. He got to play baseball for a living. He made the majors. He got to the Series. His team won. That's pretty much the dream when you're 8 years old and playing catch with your dad – or throwing the ball up on the garage roof by yourself while your dad yells from the house to shut up out there, he's trying to read the paper. Hypothetically. Just to throw another possible childhood scenario out there. Not that it happened. Not that it didn’t.
Sure, a Burbank softball field is a long way from The Show, and he wasn’t looking back on Johnny Bench’s career, but this former backup catcher and current assistant recreation director knew what that ring represented, and he knew nobody could take it away from him. A person could be in a lot worse place at the age of 35.
He could be on his knees vomiting into the toilet bowl of a filthy rest room in a crummy suburban bar in Westchester County, for instance. Because Lawrence Taylor – yes, that Lawrence Taylor – out for a beer after Giants' practice, had just gotten a standing ovation for paying him $100 to get off a makeshift stage with no lights, a battery-operated sound system and no air conditioning in the middle of August. After he had failed to entertain a single person in a room full of 20-something men so drunk that none of them even noticed the even drunker guy in the front row who had decided to go commando that night and was now accidentally exposing himself. Remembering how he had given up a promising law career to become a huge star and instead found himself living off his wife in a vermin-infested fourth-floor walk-up in a bad neighborhood of a dangerous city.
If I had met that catcher a little earlier, I might have taken more satisfaction in enduring nightly humiliation on dark smoky stages, learning how to make people laugh, and getting paid for something I would have done for free. Or some satisfaction, even, instead of obsessing about the failure of a stupid world to recognize a comic genius when they saw one. Fortunately, I did meet him in time to change my perspective, so that I could recognize the chance to put words in the mouths of talented actors to perform for millions of people every week on television as the privilege it is.