Absurdity, Allegory and China

The Kingdom from another angle.

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Road Games

October 21st, 2008 · 9 Comments

I was born on the twenty-sixth day of the eighth month in the absolute middle of the 20th century, 8/26/1950. My first recollected memory, from 1953, is of my father coming home on a Friday evening as I, his eldest son, sat dutifully on the bottom step along the Weaver Street sidewalk waiting for him to return from Jersey City where he worked through the week. It was warm, so it must have been baseball season. My father, a hopeless Phillies fan, was still, no doubt nursing the wounds of the pennant winning 1950 Whiz Kids’ 4-0 World Series drubbing by the New York Yankees, even though it was then three seasons on. That evening he walked with a list from the weight of his suitcase, which was full of dirty clothes that would be taken care of over the weekend before he left again on Sunday evening. But laundry be damned, there was time enough between now and then to listen to a Friday night and then two weekend day games.

Saturday afternoons he’d often find his ways to Hogan’s where he’d drink beer with other WWII vets and cheer for the team that could never quite get there. Sometimes he’d take me along, and I’d sit on one of the high stools sipping 7-Up as the men with their bottomless pilsners drank Piels, Ballantine, Ortliebs on tap. It was always dark, smoky and loud, full of the smell of men. There was pinball, shuffleboard and sawdust as small money and fast talk passed back and forth. I didn’t mind going since I’d usually end up with a pocketful of nickels. Sometimes there were fights, which were shoved out onto the street. But there was also a TV that always seemed to be showing baseball, though in those early days of television I know that cannot be right. There just always seemed to be baseball. And that’s what stuck.

My first game at Connie Mack Stadium, when I was 6, was a twi-night doubleheader, the Phillies vs. Cubs. My father, who had changed jobs and was home every night, had somehow gotten two front row seats up against the thick backstop glass directly behind home plate, literally, the best seats in the house. My mother thought that a pair of games for one so young was far too much for me to handle; factoring in bus and subway rides, I’d not get home until after midnight, she’d argued. I can almost hear her saying, “My Lord, Jim, he’s only six,” her voice an octave higher than it was before the tickets showed up. She obviously didn’t understand baseball. [Aside: After Willie ‘Puddin Head’ Jones, the Phillies’ third baseman (1947-59), had divorced his wife, my mother, a tireless Irish Catholic – in scenes reminiscent of the Joyce’s Dedalus family Christmas dinner – would quietly rage about the split up, as she wondered how the management could possibly let such a dissolute man play. I remember as a boy, thinking, “But he’s a good third baseman. What does this have to do with divorce?”] Though my father didn’t hold that against her, he also wasn’t about to let an opportunity like this be trumped by the ignorance of a non-believer. A half-century later the images from that game are still lively in my head. The deepest impressions were of Ernie Banks, the first black Cubs player – at the time the Phillies were still all-white – and Stan Lopata, who I am sure hit a home run in one of the games. All the players seemed like giants as they moved about just feet away from where I sat next to my father. I was as close as one could possibly get, and the dense glass added an element of oddness and distortion – as if I were in a fish bowl looking out – certainly intensifying the memory.

But despite this early anointing what slowly became clear was that being a fan meant that misery was, in fact, quantifiable, measured by the number of games the Phils ended up out of first place each season. In 1961 I prayed that it wouldn’t get to 7-squared, and when the last game finished I breathed a sigh of relief; they’d only missed first place by 46. I listened to tales of what coulda, oughta, shoulda happened but somehow never did. Almost seemed to be a permanent state of being, even as its limits continued to grow. I learned early on that disappointment was as natural as getting punched in the head. Through the fifties and early sixties the stories of the Whiz Kids tailed off into acute frustration and spiritual desolation, and though I never quite forgot that the Yankees had their own special room in Hell waiting, here on earth we Philadelphia fans silently lived each day in our very own state of thorny un-grace. And so early on I learned to swear, no doubt adding to the number of times I ended up getting punched in the head as I yearned to somehow be saved.

One of the divine truths of baseball is that, more often than not, we don’t choose the teams we end up with. Although this was never addressed in the Baltimore Catechism (which probably explains why I fell away), I am pretty sure that I’m onto something here. Somewhere in the deepest fog of the infinitely unknowable we are assigned teams – for lack of a better phrase – for reasons that only God knows. People born in places like Tuva or Kentucky have the freedom to choose whom they’ll follow. But when you’re born in a city that has a team that predates your arrival in the ‘game’ by generations, one can only conclude that there is an explanation for ending up here rooting for this particular team. I am heartened to know that there are souls who in … I’m speculating here … another life did something worse than those of us who love the Phillies. I can only imagine what Cubs fans did to end up in Chicago and the misty fringes of northern Indiana and southern Wisconsin, though I’m thinking it must have something to do with having ridden with Genghis Khan and having done a lot of things that were seriously not right. I know it sounds like I’m staking it all on karma here, but I live in China, I know a lot of Tibetans, what can I say. There’s a reason for all our pain. Or maybe not.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has another team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, in 1960, won the National League pennant 36 games ahead of the Phillies, who, in last place – one game behind the Cubs – had only managed 59 wins in the season. In one of the greatest upsets in World Series history, Pittsburgh beat the mighty Yanks in seven, a dramatic Bill Mazeroski homer in the bottom of the ninth. I’d rushed home from school to see it clear the wall at Forbes Field. Though I was happy that the Yanks had lost, this was hardly retribution, not when my team was home watching it too. It was Pittsburgh, which in the Phillies cosmogony, might as well be Ohio. The only Phillie who had reached the top of any of the 1960 league leader boards was Pancho Herrera who struck out 136 times, beating out the next closest whiffer by 23. While Mazeroski had sent Mickey, Roger, Yogi and the rest of the pin-striped demons to perdition, Phillies’ fans were still wondering whether the sun would continue to rise.

The following season the Phillies managed only 47 wins. I was 11 and on the edge of utter despair. They lost 107 games.

I started high school in 1964. 1964. Those who know, know, and those who don’t, don’t need to know. It’s not some Harley thing; it’s just about pain. But it’s my story and I get to tell it, even if after 4+ decades I still can’t find the words. Don’t even try to tell me that the collapsing Mets of the past two seasons even come close. They don’t. They haven’t suffered enough yet to know what meltdown really means. Come back in a half-century of spectacular disappointments and then possibly you’ll have some idea of what happened in 1964 in Philadelphia. But even then you won’t know, since whatever can happen to you has already happened before, in Philadelphia where we bled out.

From the ashes of the late fifties and early-sixties the Phillies under Gene Mauch rose in 1964 higher than anyone could ever have predicted, could ever have possibly imagined. They played the best 150 game season that most Philadelphians had ever seen. The problem was that there were still a dozen games to play, and they were only up by 6 1/2. They lost 10 of the final 12 games and finished the season a game short. I can’t begin to tell it. There’s a book that explains it, September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration by William Kashatus; it’s on my shelf here in Tianjin beside Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness. The arrangement is by design, a constant reminder that anything that can happen probably will,  and that, if you’re from Philadelphia, more often than not it does.

Somehow I made it through high school, though there hardly seemed to be any real point to it. In 1968 baseball was set aside, and I wandered. To sea. To foreign lands. To places I couldn’t spell. There was a foggy low spot that was the seventies, and somewhere in it was me, though I’m not really quite sure where. It’s like a series of pictures from ‘Where’s Waldo?” only there’s no Waldo in any of the pictures. You look and look and keep on looking, until finally you just give up and say, “There really is no Waldo,” and I say, ”Yeah, I know.”

Someone would mention baseball, and I’d turn away. I was still in the process of falling, waiting for the bottom to rise and meet me halfway, something which it never seemed to do. And so I fell even farther. The game had become nothing more than a series of fragmented images: a hopping Carlton Fisk waving a home run fair, (but all for naught, all for naught), Steve Yeager with a shard of a broken bat in his neck and Mike Schmidt in burgundy in an All-Star game.

And so I wandered more.

In the spring of 1980 I stumbled into northern Wyoming and took a job on a sheep ranch. When they needed someone to take a band of sheep out on the range for the season, I said, “Why not.” So out I went into the badlands of the Bighorn Basin. I had a horse, a wagon, a good dog, 950 sheep, a radio and a stash of batteries. As the snowline lifted I gradually trailed them up into the high country. In the high basin and higher mountains I could pick up radio stations for a thousand miles in any direction. And so I rediscovered baseball. As a former Phillies fan I couldn’t have picked a more fortuitous year. The Phils were hot, and when they were west of the Mississippi I could listen to their games. Though I’d left Philadelphia 12 years earlier, Philadelphia had hardly left me. And so I listened, though with a great deal of apprehension, and, begrudgingly, a modicum of hope.

I scanned the airwaves each night looking for the company of a game in the high, beautiful, solitary Bighorns as summer waned and the August snow squalls blew through unannounced. As the season ended I’d already trailed the sheep to the winter pasture in the McCullough Peaks, a strange and isolated geologic anomaly in the northwestern Bighorn Basin. I listened and screamed and sweated through the Phillies-Astros playoff series with nothing but a horse, two dogs and a winter band of 1,800 sheep to hear me. And when the Phils emerged victorious, clinching their first World Series spot since 1950, I screamed so loud I was afraid that I’d broken the sky. They were going to play Kansas City.

By the time the Series began the first shot of winter had come, a blinding snowstorm that blew for a day and a half. I’d lost all the sheep—not dead, just gone—and I spent the next 24-hours unsuccessfully looking for them in the cold, clear and snowy isolation of the Peaks. That night, Game 1, I was distracted. I hadn’t found them, and I was cold, miserable and not looking forward to the next morning; when you’re herding sheep you’re not supposed to lose them. I found them the following day after riding 10 miles to the nearest farmhouse, calling the ranch and explaining the situation. The camp tender, a wonderful man named John Hopkin, showed up in his truck and found them within an hour. That’s when I told John I’d had it. Six months alone was long enough; I wanted to go to town. It took several days to find another herder, and I listened to the first five games of the Series in the evenings beside the woodstove in the windblown wagon. I went to Lovell the morning of Game 6, the Phillies up 3-2.

Lovell, Wyoming is small, and if anyone there was a baseball fan, I certainly didn’t know them. I knew about six people in the entire county, and the only television I had access to was in the Wagon Wheel Bar. It was a weeknight and the place was relatively quiet. The television was in the back room, along with a phone booth and two pool tables. Three Mexicans ranch hands were quietly playing 8-ball on the table by the rear exit, and there weren’t any rowdy drunks looking to leg wrestle or fight. I drank my beers and watched the game and got cranked as the Phils, who were at home, went up 4-0. From 2,000 miles away I watched the crowd in Veterans Stadium get wild, then wilder. In the top of the ninth I sat in the phone booth with the door open and called a younger brother who was at home in suburban Philadelphia. We talked and watched together as Tug McGraw, on the verge of breaking into blossom, pitched the Phillies to their first and only World Series title. It was a feeling both wonderful and odd: I was alone in a western bar with a cowboy hat on my head, quietly getting drunk in a phone booth, and for the first time backing a hometown winner.

Though the Phils made it back to the Series in 1983 when they lost to Baltimore – scoring only 9 runs in 5 games – and again in ’93 when they lost to Canada in six, I think they’re both intentional blocks. Now they’re back in the Series again, playing Tampa Bay, and I’m living in eastern China wondering where I’m going to watch it. I must admit that I’m disappointed that they’re not playing Boston, since, in the spirit of the Franklins and the Adamses, I really wanted to see an 2008 AmRev series. Maybe that one will come along next year. It’s baseball, and I’ll take it the way it is. That’s what I’ve learned from the road where, despite the odds, hope finds a way of getting by.

Tags: baseball · Phillies

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 bhb // Oct 22, 2008 at 4:56 am

    I remember different beers as being favored, such as Schlitz and Schaefer and Philadelphia’s own Schmidt’s Beer.

  • 2 jg // Oct 22, 2008 at 7:02 am

    There were those too, as well as several others. My father had a taste for Gretz.

  • 3 Jonathan // Oct 24, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Your beautiful writing reached my beautiful, beloved son who’s now living, editing, writing in Beijing. From my shared baseball memories with my father, to my son’s sharing yours with me, thank you.

  • 4 jg // Oct 24, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Thanks so much for that, Jonathan. It always nice to know that someone is reading, as well as appreciating the effort.

  • 5 Josianne // Oct 25, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Great piece, Jim. I’ve always loathed baseball, so I probably was in that Genghis Khan horde and just had to marry a rabid baseball fan. But…you write so articulately about how baseball has touched your life that I almost understand the passion.

    Come watch anytime. Mi casa es su casa.

  • 6 Paul // Oct 31, 2008 at 7:27 am

    Move the scene to the South Side of Chicago and change the team to the White Sox and I suffered along with you in the same years. I was a fireman on a Rock Island switch engine the night they clinched the pennant in ’59, so we celebrated with literal bells and whistles. Thanks for a great reminiscence that rang all my bells, Jim.

  • 7 Bill K // Apr 9, 2009 at 6:24 am

    How ’bout Ballentine?? They sponsored those sorry Phils for years in the 50’s and 60’s.

  • 8 Jim Gourley // Apr 9, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Ballantine’s in their, Bill, second paragraph.

  • 9 Walt Hug // Dec 8, 2009 at 10:00 am

    I just discovered your blog and this article…and I know I am adding a comment a couple of years late…your writing is great – and your description of going to Connie Mack for the first time is just like mine. My favorite Phillie growing up was Johnny Callison – who happened to live in our town – Glenside (along with catcher Clay Dalyrmple), back in our very innocent and better times.
    I now need to discover more of your writings here!

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