by Chris Mattingly
I think he probably drove by the field a time or two. And if he did, he would have pumped one long arm out the brown Datsun window. I know a time or two, when my dad had gotten finished early with his paper route, he’d duck his head into the room and see me on the edge staring at my hands. By 11-years old, they were already callused and cracked. The backs of my hands and the webbing between my fingers rimmed with dirt that to this day is still there. Sometimes, I’d sit picking at the calluses like bread crusts on my heels and big toes, calluses from wearing spikes more than regular shoes. But typically, I was gone before he’d pop in between his route and job at the Zenith Plant that’s long since turned to buckled concrete and kudzu. And although he never really said anything, he always saw to it that the bucket of baseballs was left on the porch.
I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but I’m telling you, I was already accustomed to waking up in the dark dawn to take batting practice on a ramshackle baseball diamond. At 5 o’clock, the digital red numbers on the clock would flash to the beat of the beeping alarm. When I rolled over in the sweat and dew damp bed sheets, I could smell the grey diesel of idle delivery trucks blown in by the box fan set in the open window. The quake of the a.m. freight train made the glistening walls hum. Jake breaking 18-wheelers coming down Highway 41. Traffic lights waving in the wake. My room was a real pigsty, but nothing would hurt my eyes like turning on the bare bulb. So I’d grope my way through piles of soured mesh shirts, sweat hardened socks, tipped over plastic Coke bottles, and Styrofoam pizza boxes. The first slashes of light glinting on the shiny inside of a potato chip bag or on a smoky medallion hanging from a trophy on the shelf. Hustling because my own internal clock would be saying go, go, go. Let’s go. Shuffling silently like some kind of monk cloaked in a hooded black sweatshirt, my cleats tied together by their strings and draped around my neck. My rough open palm like sandpaper upon the wall of the dark hallway toward the blue light of the TV in the living room. There my sister and a couple of her friends lay sprawled on couches or spread across the floor in pallets of smoky blankets, random towels, and scattered cushions. The flickering TV bright enough to illuminate the lingering smoke of a cigarette one of them woke to probably when they heard my alarm. The volume turned down when my dad passed through on his way to his early paper route, the screen left on, I think, for the light it would provide me as I snuck past the girls I’d been trying to fool around with the night before.
The baseball field at Holy Spirit Catholic School was about a mile away, and would be empty, I knew, if not for the dew and bark of the occasional stray. Any minute I’d be meeting my best friend and teammate Neil in the still empty parking lot of Simpson’s Grocery and Deli. And he’d come riding the mountain bike he was already too long for, his knees churning ridiculously close to his shoulders as he rode. On one hand, he wore his baseball mitt. With the other, he pinned his 32-inch Louisville Slugger clumsily to the handlebars. Minutes later we’d be swinging into the Burger King across the street where men our grandparents’ age were drinking coffee and talk over our game plan. Even though the field was close, walking through my neighborhood was seldom uneventful, and more than once, we had run-ins with older kids. One morning, we were sitting on the curb in front of Family Dollar with our breakfast sandwiches when this big, kid, probably 15 or 16, walked by and swiped Neil’s hat right off his head. We were just sitting there, our bikes and equipment thrown around us, scarfing down our ham and egg, licking the melted cheese from the wax wrappers, when they came up, three of them. I remember after the boy took Neil’s hat that the boys sat down only fifty feet from us, daring us to say or do something.
Sometimes, even at the field, we’d get mixed up in skirmishes. I can remember a kid in his late-teens walking up to us on the field and trying to rob us. He didn’t have a gun or even a knife, just knuckles the size of cinder blocks. He told us to give him all our money, which would have been at best some piddly amount change. I’m not going to say we laid him out with aluminum bat and stomped his ribs with our cleats, but I know we didn’t give him anything. If we’d see a group of kids ride by on bikes, we’d get ready for them to slowly hook around, and come back to the field where they’d throw their bikes down and jump the fence. Back then, in that neighborhood, it was almost a given that the only way to avoid fights with other kids was to stay in the house. Which would have been worse for us than any possible amount of bloody knuckles or bruised cheeks. Besides, I think all this only sweetened our workouts and focused our vision. Yes, we both wanted to play in the Major Leagues, and if we were going to achieve the MLB, there was no other route we could see.
Now, when I say see, I don’t just mean just the passive optical distance implied in witnessing, say, two kids walking a street at dawn. Or noticing an overgrown ball diamond where a stray dog turns to see you watching him from the windows of the commuter train. I mean seeing, which has its roots in Old English and Latin, meaning both to imagine and follow. I’m talking about the entanglements between our interior and exterior worlds; I’m talking about the ways in which our vision is linked to prophecy and mysticism. I’m talking about lying in bed at night dreaming a way out of this violence and squalor; imagining yourself on some obscure coast watching the shadowed waves roll in. And then following that person out of him or herself and into the world. When we think of seeing like this, the eyes then become a metaphor for what is, in fact, far beneath the eyes: the heart.
That said, you better have good eyes to play baseball. And when I say good eyes, I mean you better be good at visualizing. I can’t even count the times I’ve watched a teammate, through fear of the ball, bring bad things upon himself. Once, I saw a third baseman take a ball with a wicked hop right in the eye. Earlier, he’d confessed to me his terror of sharply hit balls finding him, and I could almost see for him the fangs growing on the ball, the wild eyes boring into him. For several games, I knew the ball would chew his glove to shreds, climb his arm, and stamp a big nasty bruise on his chest. From that point on, husky though he was, he began to shrink away from the game until one season he just didn’t come out.
And you know the opposite is true with swift-footed, soft-handed shortstops who field fearlessly their position. Some of these guys fifty pounds shy of two bucks and sucking up knuckling short hops and exploding rockets like nothing. They have gloves so dazzling you’d think they learned the game playing on a gravel infield. On the field, you could see them coming out of a crouch with cat feet, a begging hand and glove open almost sweet-talking the ball his way. In this sense, when Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot against the Chicago Cubs in 1932, Ruth was actually doing nothing that every good player doesn’t do every at-bat. Whether or not he actually pointed to the stands, the Bambino, and probably every person in that stadium, forecasted that homerun.
Neil and I would do our own variations of Ruth, Nolan Ryan, or Ozzie Smith by throwing ourselves into game situations hour-after-hour. One game, a bat control game, we liked to play was called Pepper. We played Pepper, positioned fifteen feet apart with one of us whizzing pin-pointed pitches around the zone. Even though the swing was at half speed, the hitter had to be quick and short enough with the hands to make contact. But at the same time, you had to be soft enough with the bat to guide each ball—not just back to the pitcher—but first to his backhand side, then up the middle, and finally to his open hand side like this until you messed up and had to swap places. Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that depending on the type of game situation, a hitter will aim to hit the ball into specific parts of the field. Watch Ichiro hit. With a runner on second and less than two outs, you know he’s not up there just hacking away at whatever junk the pitcher throws up there. No way. In that situation he will hit the ball on the ground to the right side of the infield, or, say if there’s a hit-and-run play on, he will hit the ball into the hole the shortstop created after he left to cover second base.
But if we wanted to really break the swing down, we’d work off the tee. From the baseball academies in the Dominican Republic to the Taiwan Little Leagues to Major League hitting coaches, the tee is the way to slow down the game and get a closer look at every element of the swing. With the tee, you can actually move your body around the ball to simulate trajectory. As a hitter, pulling inside pitches didn’t come natural to me, so I’d set up with the ball only inches away from my front leg. Getting up on the ball like this forced me to open my hips, step out, and turn on the ball. If you think about it, it only takes about .45 seconds for a 90mph fastball to travel from the mound to home plate. In other words, the ball sits on any given inch of its journey four roughly .0006 seconds. By positioning the body in different locations around the tee, a hitter can move time forward or backwards by the thousandth of a second that makes the difference in a line drive over the wall or an infield pop fly. And if we are measuring time in terms of how long it takes for a pitch to reach the hitter, when the ball is sitting on the tee, time stops.
Given that I had entered into some of the most bewildering times of my life, I guess it’s not surprising that I wanted to stop time. Two nights before my Pinto League all-star game, when I was eight-years old, I’d gotten my name on the back of my jersey for the first time in my life. I still remember how the rubbery gold letters arced above my number, and the way they’d stick together after pulling them out of the dryer. When my dad and I picked the t-shirt jersey up from Gus Doerner Sporting Goods, I instantly imagined showing it off to my mom. That’s what kids do, right? They bust in the door holding the shirt out in front of their little frame, cheesing great big. And that becomes the picture on the mantle 20-years later. But when we got home, she wasn’t there. I don’t remember Dad saying anything, but he must’ve known. Or, maybe, she had threatened leaving but he didn’t think she’d really be gone. There were countless times before that she had packed everything into her hatchback and left for her family in Louisiana. Usually, about half way through Tennessee, she’d call, waking us up late at night, asking if Dad if she could come back home. Him pacing in the hall, ok ok.
I put my jersey on and waited up late into that night. I still wonder what I was thinking about as I moved around my little room while Dad and my sister slept? High on my wall was a bullet hole that I remember my mom patching up and repainting. Our neighbor had been cleaning his gun, and accidentally fired his weapon through my window while I was asleep. On another wall was the striped wallpaper she’d hung with her own hands, and against that wall, shelves she’d built. Fingering the clothes she had mended or tracing the paintbrush patterns on the door trim, I would continue to look for her for the next four or so years. One night, many years later, my mom crashed her car into the living room where I was sleeping. I don’t remember the sound the car made as it crashed into the wall, or how long it took for her face to appear through the broken glass of the front door, or what my dad first did when he came running out of his bedroom, or how long it took the police to throw her on the ground.
It had been years since I’d outgrown my Pinto League all-star jersey, but this was the first time since then I’d seen her. Knowing me, I probably still even had that sad little jersey stuffed in the bottom of some drawer for when she finally decided to show up. And there she was: wasted, hurt, and angry. Banging her head against the window in the back seat of the police car.
I’ve spent years moving around that moment the same way I moved around the ball on the tee, but, ultimately, it wouldn’t be until I moved 2000-miles away and got 10-years distance that I could even begin to approximate an understanding of this time. By then, it would be so soaked with sadness, so bogged down with self-pity, so completely saturated with liquor and drugs that I must’ve sounded like some sad bastard at the end of the bar talking about the one that got away.
I know this is going to sound like one of those sad bastard songs at the end of the bar in some crumbling neighborhood tavern, but I think I was, in fact, on a path to the Major Leagues. You’ve heard the stories before: Man, I was this close...brother, I was recruited by Bama...I’m telling you, I was the top player in the state, but fill in the blank. I think I might’ve been a little different though. Look, I hit over .450 for my high school career. I didn’t make a single error at shortstop in two seasons. I played on teams that competed on the state and national level for nearly 8 straight years. I got a lot of looks. I had a lot of conversations with scouts and college coaches. Division I coaches would come to see one player, then be talking to me by the end of the game. My high school coach was certain I was going to get drafted, you can read it in the paper, I’ve still got the articles. In the end, I wound up with only a full-scholarship at a top-25 Juco—Olney Central College. There, I hit over .400 again and played errorless baseball at Third Base, Shortstop, and Second Base. On top of that, I started eating like a horse and working out. I put on 30 lbs. of muscle and got quicker and faster. And, I’m not going to lie, I thought I could make it playing ball, but coach busted me for drinking liquor and benched me for the rest of the season. So I quit.
Then, nearly 15-years later, the damndest thing happened to me. I was in LA for the Dodgers/Pirates series, and before one of the games, I talked to an ex-teammate from college, Clint Barmes—the starting Shortstop for Pittsburgh. It had been since college that we had seen each other, so we stood on the field catching up while the team took batting practice. Like me, Clint was one of a couple players who were awarded a full-scholarship to play ball at the school in southern Illinois. As we talked, I learned he was still shocked that I didn’t return for our sophomore year. He then told me that he had been telling every teammate he’d had that he never would have made it to the Major Leagues if I hadn’t quit. When I quit, Clint was moved from the outfield to play the position he said he never could have beaten me out of. The position he’d been playing professionally for over a decade.
As Clint talked, I noticed the players shagging fly balls, fielding grounders on the infield, driving balls deep with smooth swings. Light music was playing on the P/A as fans leaned over the wall by the dugout asking for autographs. I felt the velvet-soft grass of the field as I shifted back-and-forth from one foot to the other. While standing on the field with the other Major Leaguer’s going through their pre-game routines, I realized the difference between where we were standing was, in a sense, only a matter of inches. But since I’d quit baseball, the closest semblance of my old self was my last name.
After I quit college, I followed a half-baked vision to California. I’d read Hesse’s Siddhartha and Kerouac’s On the Road, and that was all the permission I needed to jump in my Honda Accord and go for it. Through those books, I’d already begun to see myself projected on some far away coastline. I would lay in bed reading in my mom’s basement in western Kentucky. Upstairs, she and her boyfriend, Curtis, and whoever else happened to be around that night would get liquored up, take handfuls of pills, and snort meth. Without fail, the night would end in a crescendo of punches and kicks and broken dishes. A door slamming. A car spinning donuts in the yard, skidding onto the pavement. An engine winding out. Gunshots. Cops. Look, I didn’t know how I’d get by out west, but it would be easier than hanging around people who would be dead or in jail by the end of the year.
I guess I lived in my car—a cramped, clammy $900 Honda Accord—for the better part of a year. I didn’t have any friends, so at night I’d drive around town looking for good, dark places to park. I loved it. I had a good sleeping bag, and I would pull up next to some overgrown pink jasmine bush or under the canopy of a cypress tree, and lay down my driver seat. Alone, late at night, I’d imagine my mom driving her car into our living room. I walk back into that moment just like I was walking up to the tee. I’d imagine the places my mom slept when she was homeless. Lying in my front seat, I’d see her there next to me. Aloud, I’d say, in through the nose, out through the mouth as if I were stepping up to the plate in a game nobody was watching. I’d fall asleep with windows made foggy my breathing.
During the day, I’d smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, and walk around. Sometimes, I’d hike Big Sur or hang out with squatters and street people in Santa Cruz. But everywhere I’d go, it was almost like I was going there just to think about my mom. It’s like you might sometimes do when you get a new record: it’s different depending on where you listen to it because it takes on the textures of the environment, I think, and it changes, becomes more layered. Listening to The Clash or Nirvana in Yosemite Valley is a different experience than listening to them while you’re riding the subway. So I’d go climbing through the ruins of old Cannery Row, find a perch overlooking Monterey Bay and think about Mom. I’d sit at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, watching the giant seals shimmy and twist through the blue water. I’d sit in crowded coffee shops in North Beach listening to the shuffle of baristas hustling coffee. I’d jump butt-ass naked into the frigid Big Sur river. I’d swash around in mosh pits at the Black Box Caberet. I’d sit up all night in the laundromat in Pacific Grove, putting quarters in the dryers to keep me warm. All of it was just another way of looking at my mom. Even the time I almost jumped off that rooftop in downtown Monterey. Even the year I ran the Monterey County Needle Exchange, and worked intimately with heroin addicts, exchanging 15,000 syringes a month. Or the year I lived on a cliff in Big Sur, waking every morning and standing in a waterfall that overlooked a canyon of redwood. And the 18 months I spent wandering from NYC, Nova Scotia, Arizona, Louisiana, British Columbia, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
Recently, my partner Laurel and I were walking around Savannah, Georgia. We live in rural Emanuel County about an hour away from that town, which we visit nearly once a week. We were sitting on a wooden bench in Wright Square, enjoying the gnarly shade of giant live oaks whose branches reached out across centuries. Spanish moss dripped down from branches, iron fences, railings, and Tomo-Chi-Chi’s marble monument in the center of the square. A trumpeter played blues to the clank and scuff of horse drawn carriages. The houses, storefronts and public buildings around the square were like a movie set to the antebellum tour guides speaking in a Southern dialect manufactured even by native Southerners. I was talking about my 17-year old nephew when we noticed the clock on the Old Courthouse tower had stopped. We looked at it until it began to actually turn backwards.
Two weeks earlier, my nephew had gotten into a car accident. His best friend suffered a broken neck and died, suffocating next to him. They had been partying—drinking, getting high, and driving fast—things typical to teenage kids, but with a speed and ferocity, even a sense of competition that is common in my family. They were partying hard. Aware of the miracle of my own survival, I’d become scared for my young nephew’s well being. I was scared—not only for what the immediate anguish, guilt, and sadness that would surely ball into a drug coaxed coping—for what would ultimately happen to this boy. I am scared because I was raised in the same family in the same neighborhood of the same depressed city. I was raised with similar lofty expectations and the same self-hatred that comes from not succeeding, from being “a waste,” according to teachers, coaches, and bosses.
My nephew, like me, was raised to know the self-medicating purposes of drugs and alcohol. His mother, my sister, has been using crank and meth since before her son was born, and that drug and its problems has been one of the only constants in his life. More than a handful of times, she has abandoned her son for days, left him to care for his two younger brothers. But on a more regular basis, he has been casually neglected for weeks and months at a time, living at his dad’s crowded house, while his mom just wasn’t around. I don’t know what the better situation is. Already twice in his young life, he has had to stand between my sister and a grown man, both high and trying to kill each other. I wonder how many times he heard the thuds on the floor overhead, the bottles broken, the doors slammed, the bodies smacked and thrown before he found it in himself to climb those stairs and momentarily quiet the violence.
When my sister and I were 14 and 15, our mom began to rekindle a relationship with us. I remember hearing from her on Thanksgiving when I was a sophomore in high school. About a month before, I had been kicked out of the Catholic school that my dad and grandpa had attended. I wasn’t expecting to hear from her that Thanksgiving, but when she said she was at a tavern partying with the family, I figured I’d walk over. The tavern, The Old Kentucky, was only a few blocks away, and I knew there would be family I hadn’t seen in years. But really I think the lure was the drinking and pool playing. I knew that if I showed up in the tavern, it wouldn’t matter how young I was, no one would stop me from taking shots and drinking cans of Sterling Beer. As it turned out, the lure of alcohol and drugs would be the glue for our new relationship with Mom. We went from not seeing her—not even knowing where she was (I thought she lived with our family in Louisiana)—to hanging out with her almost everyday. Soon, she was calling the secretary at school to say we were sick or had a family emergency, and we’d spend the day drinking with her and Curtis.
This was one of the most exciting periods in my life. They were also a volatile, violent, and awakening few years. In the morning we’d smoke weed, listen to music, and make breakfast. While my friends were sitting in English and Math classes, I was sitting at a small table smoking Camels and listening to my mom tell stories. She told me about her daddy getting killed down in Louisiana when she was 8. She told me about finally going back there after being gone for thirty years—after she and my dad split—and how the family welcomed her as causal as if she was getting home from work. How she had tried to see us all those years, but I’d stand up, pull her from the sink where she was talking and doing dishes, hold her close in a clumsy dance to the Pink Floyd or Zeppelin song that was playing on the little alarm clock radio.
One morning, about four years later, I’m lying in bed. It’s after 11 o’clock on a school day, but I’d already decided to quit anyway. So I prop myself up on an elbow and light a cigarette. My mattress is on one of those concrete floors that are in basement. There’s gone-through cardboard boxes full of photographs, dishes, and winter clothes. Some of the boxes are soggy and collapsing from water that dripped in from someplace. One of the boxes has fallen completely open but the clothes have remained standing in a tangled cube. There’s random bike tires, hubcaps, filthy gallon jugs half full of some oily stuff I can’t figure out. Newspapers, a moldy shower curtain, unbreakable plastic whiskey bottles and cigarette butts. I’m piled up in the corner looking at all this when I see it: myself in 10 years.
I’m so lucky it’s not even funny. A college professor? I could’ve stayed at that house and croaked from a heroin overdose like my mom’s boyfriend Curtis. Or been like George who sat on the toilet, put a shotgun to his chest, and blasted his heart out. I could’ve been like Dave and swallowed enough Oxycontin to sink into that concrete floor. I could’ve been Gary borrowing money from a broke 20-year old for something to keep him from shivering. I could’ve gotten in my car—my eyes aflame with liquor and bewilderment—and rammed my green ‘69 Chevelle 110-mph into a tree. I could’ve been my nephew.
Lying in bed with the lights out, I could be him. He could be me.
CHRIS MATTINGLY played an estimated 2000 games at shortstop. During the 80’s, his dad would drive him to St. Louis to watch Ozzie Smith field ground balls during batting practice. But today, no one astonishes him like outfielder Yasiel Puig. He admits that he still prefers his Yankee cap, that Dodger blue just doesn’t look as natural on him. Mattingly teaches at a small college in Georgia. His book of poems is Scuffletown from Typecast Publishing. He keeps a ball and glove in the trunk of his car.