Will you ever think about me when I’m gone?

One afternoon in February 1987, back when I still had hopes of being a rock star, I sat down on my bed and tried to write a song. Much to my surprise, it came easily — the only time that’s ever happened to me. I was done, lyrics and all, in less than 30 minutes.

The song was called “Will You Ever Think About Me (When I’m Gone).” Here’s the recording I made a few days later (thanks, Dave), sluggish start, flubs and all:

At the time, I thought I was writing a standard kiss-off song: You weren’t the person I thought you were, so goodbye. But in retrospect, I wonder if the title was channeling one of my deepest fears. Would I be remembered after I die?

It’s not just me, I’m well aware. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying” — Woody Allen.) Still, the older I get, the more I wonder what of me will live on. My wife and I don’t have any children. I think of myself as an introvert, so my social circle is small. Yes, the Internet is forever, but besides my CNN bylines and this blog, there really isn’t much else. (I’m not counting the material owned by Mark Zuckerberg, that putz.)

So I couldn’t help but be dropped back into the existential abyss after reading Anakana Schofield’s column in Sunday’s New York Times, “Where Do the Dead Go in Our Imaginations?”

Schofield lost a friend to suicide several years ago, someone who was incredibly generous, someone who thought of Anakana with small gifts and large actions. “I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?”

So Schofield volunteers. She tries to be there for others. She feels her friend’s spirit. And she hopes this is enough.

“This is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified,” she writes. “They cheer for us. … They coax us through.”

Twenty-one years ago, I lost a good friend. G and I had worked together at a TV station when I returned to Atlanta in 1991, and he helped me get on my feet when I needed some free-lance opportunities. He was a hard-core Braves fan — I’ll never forget the phone call he made late in the 1991 pennant race after the Bravos inexplicably came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Reds 7-6 on a ninth-inning Dave Justice homer — and he was remarkably open about his doubts and flaws. One of the latter was drinking, and though he had made attempts to quit, he blamed himself after his child was born with disabilities and used alcohol to take away the pain. One day his body had enough. He was 33.

I miss G. I think about him at odd times (like now). I don’t even have a photo of him, just an image in my mind: linebacker physique, big grin, contagious laugh. I miss him as I miss high school friends gone too soon, as I miss certain colleagues, as I miss my father. Maybe I idealize them; I’m sure I do. But in these lonely pandemic times, when the dead are with us more than is comfortable, I’ll take all the idealization I can muster.

It’s funny. I dislike the idea of holding grudges. That’s a different kind of remembrance — keeping a tight hold of the slights and quarrels that once wounded. All they do is make sure that wound never fully heals. But mourning is another kind of memory. It’s one that says I keep you in my heart, and I hope I’m doing right by you — the best of you — as I continue on this planet after you’re gone. It’s not really about living in the past. It’s about creating the future.

In a time when we have lost so much, it’s the least I can do.

Sunday read: The Hammer and the man

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?

A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.

So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?

Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.

And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.

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A tip of the cap to Major League Baseball

Image from AP via Spectrum News 1.

I had my doubts.

When Major League Baseball announced its 60-game regular season, I thought it was a mistake. It was one thing for the NBA to enclose itself in a bubble to keep Covid-19 at bay; MLB, with its larger roster and teams traveling all over the country, seemed doomed to fall to the disease.

And in the early going, it appeared that I — and many other naysayers — were going to be right. In the first few weeks of the season, several series were postponed due to the virus, and several players were afflicted. A few, including the Braves’ Nick Markakis, said they would sit the season out. (He came back, but not without a scare.)

But now, with the championship series in the books and only the World Series left to play, the sport has marked more than 47 days — that’s close to seven weeks, taking us back to August — without a positive Covid test.

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Bob Gibson, 1935-2020

Image from Getty via The New York Times.

One-twelve.

Every baseball fan knows certain numbers. 56. 755. (Sorry, Barry Bonds.) .406. 383. 511.

And 1.12.

That was Bob Gibson’s earned-run average in 1968 — a hair more than a run per nine innings. Gibson had 34 starts in 1968 and gave up more than 3 runs in exactly two of them. (One of those games was against the Dodgers in September. Had he pitched better (!), his ERA may have been below 1.1.) He had 13 shutouts. His ERAs in June and July were 0.50.

Gibson died Friday. The great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was 84.

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Roger Angell, 1920- …

Image from AP via WNYC.

Those of you who know me know I take pride in writing obituaries. They’re an opportunity to sum up a life and pay tribute to the accomplishments and the impact of the deceased.

But it’s better to write about the living. They’re still around to enjoy the words, after all.

Roger Angell turned 100 on Saturday, September 19. I completely overlooked the occasion, even though I’d seen an item last month about an early celebration in his hometown of Brooklin, Maine, and the governor of Maine proclaiming “Roger Angell Day.”

Happily, not only did Angell get to celebrate his birthday six weeks early, he was still around when the actual centenary rolled around. Less happily, it was overshadowed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death the day before, but Angell — who’s always struck me as a modest sort — probably didn’t mind.

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Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

Tom Seaver was my hero.

In this I was not exceptional. If you were a boy growing up in the New York area in the late ’60s and early ’70s — if you were a Mets fan — of course Tom Seaver was your hero. He was the Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young winner, the handsome, knee-dirtying fastball thrower from Fresno, the heart of the ever-exciting, ever-Amazin’ Miracle Mets of 1969.

I was 4 when the Mets won that World Series, and I think I attended my first game at Shea two years later. But I feel like I always knew who Tom Seaver was, even when I was too young to pronounce “Tom Seaver.”

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Should there be a baseball season?

Image from Getty via nbcsports.com.

Opening Day — Major League Baseball’s Opening Day — is one of my favorite days of the year. Though spring has technically begun a couple weeks earlier, Opening Day feels like the season’s true arrival, complete with lush green fields, upbeat crowds, and the smell of peanuts and popcorn. It is a time of beginnings.

There was no Opening Day this year. It was canceled by Covid-19.

Still, after months of arguing over money, it appears that there will be some semblance of professional baseball after all. If all goes well — and, so far, the jury is out — MLB will kick off a 60-game season on July 23.

I’m kind of dreading it.

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Reflections in the time of the virus

Last week my wife and I watched all seven episodes of “World on Fire,” the British miniseries about World War II that’s just now airing on PBS. More than once, watching Polish freedom fighters shoot Nazis or flee into the woods to fight another day, I thought: I could never do that. I would be dead a dozen times over. Somehow, they kept going.

Crises, it is said, bring out the truth in a person’s personality. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired countless acts of heroism, especially from medical personnel who are literally putting their health on the line every day. (It has also revealed that there’s nothing underneath That Orange Thing in the White House besides more anger, fear, bitterness, and a desperate craving for attention.)

I’ve read a lot about the virus and the disease – sometimes out of a determination to educate myself, sometimes out of the kind of curiosity equivalent to peeking through your fingers at a horror movie. I can’t make sense of it. I’m not sure anyone has. (If they have, please point me in their direction.)

Here’s what I know:

  • It almost certainly started around Wuhan, China, probably in a case of transfer from a bat or pangolin to humans.
  • It is incredibly contagious. Each person with the virus can infect at least two others. Some estimates have it infecting up to five people. Hence the exponential spread. By comparison, the flu has an R0 number of 1.3.
  • It affects different people not just differently, but wildly differently. Some have to be hospitalized and many die. Some live through several nights of “the beast” before, presumably, recovering. Some are barely affected. And some don’t even know they have it. It tends to be worse the older you are, but it’s hammered some relatively young people, too. Some of this confusion could be mitigated through testing, but that hasn’t exactly been a strong point of federal response.
  • You may be immune once you’ve had it. Or you may not.

Social distancing, though challenging, is doing its job. In many places it’s flattened the curve to some degree. The point of flattening the curve was to ease the load on hospitals and healthcare providers. It doesn’t mean that, now that we’ve flattened the curve, we can just go back to the way things were. The 1918 Spanish flu had three waves in the United States. The worst was the second one.

I’m scared. How can you not be? I’m 55 and, though in pretty good shape, I’m certainly not as trim and vigorous as I was in college. I try to get out for a 20- or 30-minute walk twice a day. It helps that it’s spring and the weather has mostly been pleasant.

But I find that when I go to the supermarket I’m practically running through the place, as if I could dodge coronavirus particles like raindrops. (And good luck dodging raindrops.) I made a homemade mask a couple days ago because it’s been impossible to find them and I don’t expect that to change. I know it’s supposed to protect others from me – not the other way around – but it didn’t make me feel any better either way.

The stories of dying alone, to be stacked in portable morgues, are too much to bear.

And though I’m worried what will happen if I get the virus, I’m even more worried about my wife, who survived a bout with thyroid cancer in her 20s, underwent multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and has a weakened immune system. A few years after her initial treatment for thyroid cancer she happened to pick up chicken pox from an irresponsible colleague’s child. She was feverish and laid up for several days, making me wonder if I should take her to the hospital. And that was for chicken pox.

I try not to think about it, but it’s hard not to.

I look at the pictures of the protesters in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia. They are yelling and not following social distancing guidelines. I wonder if they’ve given the disease to each other. I wonder if they’ll give it to me.

Photo by Joshua A. Bickel, Columbus Dispatch

Will Leitch, the wonderful writer about sports and other things, puts out a weekly newsletter. This week, he talked about how he’s been reading every book about 9/11 and how the shape of the 9/11 story established itself only a few years after the event. That day, and the days after, we didn’t know if there were going to be more attacks, more chaos, more death.

Now we’re barely a couple months in the Covid crisis and people already want to turn to the end of the book to see how it comes out. I can’t blame them – it’s terrifying, and not only do we not know the ending, we don’t know how messy the chapters in between will be – but it’s better to try to focus on the immediate. Which means social distancing, compassion, being careful in public places.

As Will says, “We’re all reeling from trauma, and not only do we not know when the next trauma is coming, we don’t even know if the last one is over yet. There’s nothing to get your arms around. It’s trying to grasp smoke.”

I miss baseball. Here’s one of my favorite moments.

I’m doing OK. Working from home hasn’t thrown me much. I was a free-lance writer for most of the ‘90s, so many of my days were spent in a corner of my bedroom, trying to pound out stories so I could eat and pay rent. This is just those days again, except this time I’m fortunate to work for a company that has been deemed a necessary business, so my paychecks are regular. I’m also fortunate that the company is private and financially conservative, and that combination of thrift and not having to serve idiot masters on Wall Street has served it well.

Which brings me to the most schadenfreude-y moment I’ve had in the last few days. In the most recent New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten writes about some sociopathic financiers who are trying to make a buck off the pandemic. This passage, about one group that believes the world is overreacting, couldn’t help but inspire a bitter laugh:

The Fokkers found it hard to let go of the conviction that the crisis was overblown, and that the shutdown could do more harm than good. One of the more clamorous champions of this opinion went quiet for a while, as he battled the virus at home, in some terror over his mounting inability to breathe. Another had a cousin on a re-breather, a firefighter who’d worked the pile at Ground Zero. And yet within a week both of them were sharing a wish that there were a way to short the price of ventilators in June or September, in the belief that we wouldn’t need nearly as many as the governors of the most beleaguered states were claiming.

This can’t help but make me think of That Orange Thing. And also how they’d react if an asteroid was on its way to a direct hit. Would they invest in water futures? Gas masks? Asbestos?

We’ve come a long way since the Black Plague of the 14th century, or even the Spanish flu. In spite of humanity’s ongoing burden of war and inequality, I’d like to think we have a more profound appreciation of life. I hope this thing passes without much more loss, and when we do start rebuilding the economy, we also rebuild society – universal healthcare in the U.S., measures to address inequality, more compassion.

One can always hope.

This song came up in a comment board I contribute to. I probably hadn’t heard it since it came out in 1980, and even when I did hear it, I imagine it was lost amid the wash of other subdued melodies and early synthesizer hits. It sounds like something that would get lost in the middle reaches of the Top Forty. (It peaked at No. 18.)

Now, though, I hear longing and loss and a bit of wisdom. It may sound like it’s about the end of a relationship, but songwriter James Warren says that wasn’t the case.

“For me it was all about an individual changing and being a different sort of person – trying to find out the root of your inner confusion, dealing with it and becoming a better person,” he said.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it?

Review: ‘Ball Four: The Final Pitch’ by Jim Bouton

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few things I look for in memoirs: good writing, a sympathetic narrator, and – if possible – abject honesty. (It’s a memoir, so sometimes you have to take people’s stories with a grain of salt.) Among my favorites are Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun” and Sean Wilsey’s “Oh the Glory of It All.”

In addition to those characteristics, it helps if the author has a sense of humanity.

I’ve now read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” three times. The first time was in my 20s, when I checked it out of the library and mainly read it for laughs – the banter, the absurdity of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the recurring demands by manager Joe Schultz for his team to “pound Budweiser.”

The next time was in early 2001, not long after I’d purchased a copy of “Ball Four: The Final Pitch” from the man himself, who was seated at a table at a now long-departed bookstore in CNN Center. “For Todd – ‘Smoke ‘em inside,’ ” he autographed it. The book had lost none of its humor, though the three epilogues – written at 10-year intervals since the book’s debut in 1970 – made it clear that Bouton was no longer the 30-year-old boy-man knuckleballer of the original work. He’d been a sports anchor in New York, starred in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” made a brief comeback with the Atlanta Braves, divorced his wife and lost his daughter in a car accident. He was a deeper, wiser man, though still also a wisenheimer.

Bouton’s death last month made me pull the book out again. Now I’m much older as well. It’s a good sign that, if anything, “Ball Four” seems far more meaningful to me now than it did 30 years ago, or even 18 years ago. Because, frankly, I was worried.

From the perspective of 2019, it’s no longer quite so humorous reading about 20- and 30-something ballplayers “beaver shooting” (that is, ogling women, particularly from certain angles), taking greenies (stimulants) or generally behaving like idiots. (Not that 20- and 30-something ballplayers – and men in general – have stopped behaving like idiots.) But, to Bouton’s credit, he seldom indulges in a “boys will be boys” attitude, though he obviously enjoys telling a good story. He’s the perpetual outsider – the antiwar person on a team full of Nixon supporters, the aging knuckleballer amid hard-throwing youngsters, the thinker on a team full of guys who barely look ahead to the next game, never mind their post-baseball lives – and he presents these tales matter-of-factly.

Moreover, though the ’69 Pilots have become a joke in retrospect – after that single year, spent at disgusting Sicks’ Stadium, they moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers – they weren’t that bad for about half a season, especially for an expansion team.

Bouton mentions in the opening entries of his dated journal that he could see the team finishing third (in what was then a six-team AL West) and he had a point: They were just four games under .500 as of July 2. Of course, they went 29-59 the rest of the way and finished in the cellar, but it’s easy to think – especially if you’re a player – that maybe things weren’t going to be so bad. I actually gained a bit of respect for Joe Schultz, who wasn’t quite the buffoon people assumed from the book. (Schultz actually had a pair of World Championship rings, earned with the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967, and later managed the Detroit Tigers.) In fact, Schultz only seems a buffoon in the early entries; by summer, Bouton has granted his manager a good deal of respect, something he never gave to pitching coach Sal Maglie or bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien. Bouton does poke fun at Schultz’s habits – his frequent cursing (“shitfuck,” “fuckshit”) and telling players to pound Buds – but he comes off much better than I remembered.

Anyway, the point is that what seemed scandalous or silly in “Ball Four” is actually far more measured than I remembered. The laughs are honestly earned.

Still, I’m glad I have “The Final Pitch,” with its afterwords. If “Ball Four” hadn’t done it, those three sections show Bouton to be something more than an old jock telling stories.

He talks about his return to the majors in 1978 not as a triumph – though it was – but as a journey with all the psychological baggage you’d imagine: coping with a failing marriage, balancing his role as a father, trying to prove to himself that he’s still a major-league pitcher, even though he had established himself in other fields. (In fact, the first Bouton book I read was “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,” the 1971 follow-up to “Ball Four,” in which he talks about the reaction to “Ball Four” and his early days as a sportscaster.) In later years, he helps come up with Big League Chew, the stringy bubblegum sold in pouches, like chewing tobacco.

And then there is the story of his daughter, Laurie. Heartbreaking. When she dies in an auto accident in 1997, Bouton is bereft. Reading it now, and knowing that “The Final Pitch” came out just three years later, you sense that he’s still an open wound. Which makes him all the more human.

Bouton wasn’t perfect. While looking for other details on the man, I stumbled on a 1983 People magazine interview with his and fellow brainy pitcher Mike Marshall’s ex-wives, which made it clear that neither Bouton nor Marshall resisted affairs on the road, not something you’d suspect from reading “Ball Four.” And Bouton admits that he probably wasn’t fair to some of his former teammates, a few of whom apparently never spoke to him again.

Still, none of that diminishes “Ball Four” and its epilogues as the story of a man loved his sport but thought of a world outside it, and had a life all the richer for it. Its famous last line – one of the best final sentences in literature, in my opinion – has even greater resonance for its introspection: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” We all have an object with a hold on us; credit to Bouton for recognizing what that means, and doing so generously.

Hope he’s smokin’ ‘em inside and pounding a few Buds in the Field of Dreams.

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Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.