(Every year at this time, when the baseball season begins, I think of one of the best writers I’ve ever known, Edvins Beitiks. He was an amazing wordsmith with an even more amazing life. He was born in Latvia. His father was conscripted to fight for Nazi Germany and would die on the Russian front, three months after Ed was born. His family lived in a refugee camp until he was five when they came to America through the help of a sponsoring family in Nebraska. He would win three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, taking a bullet through his face. He went on to become a treasure at the San Francisco Examiner when I worked there in the early 1980s. He developed cancer for the last decade of his life, stemming from his exposure to Agent Orange, yet he beat all doctors’ estimates. He died in 2001 at the young age of 56. You can still probably read some Beitiks’ stories (he wrote on virtually everything) on the Internet but below is one of my favorites, his perspective on baseball’s Opening Day, written about nine months before he died.)
By Edvins Beitiks, San Francisco Examiner
(Monday, April 3, 2000)
Opening Day. The first week of the regular season, played to a background of mumbles and chew, of ha-yah and yawp and a blazer-gun laser-shot of spit bouncing off the buffed black shoes of a player on the bench, a short grunt of splunge. The Giants and the Marlins stand in the muggy, Monday evening ooze of Miami, blinking back the outfield lights. Three hours later, the A’s host the Tigers in Oakland, the colors of their Wedding Gown-white uniforms softening with the setting sun, faces wrinkling toward the stands, waiting for the National Anthem to end.
So many words have been written about the game when it is this close, close enough to touch – words from good people like Roger Angell and Pat Jordan and Donald Honig and Lawrence Ritter. But the ghost of it still gets away from them, still has each writer making faces over a dark-blue pond, bent over the grassed bank, short-sleeved shirts sticking to their backs, fat tadpoles moving underwater through their scrabbling hands, a catch of light from a corner by the reeds, the sound of something behind their heads they can’t quite see, and then nothing. Because there is, finally, no way to see it right, to say it right, no way to do the thing justice. The game is too much of us, too much of the way we lie about ourselves, too much of the way we steal from our own lives, glancing over our shoulders to see if anybody sees.
Even if the words don’t quite do it – fingers trying to trace the game in the air, losing the start before it’s finished, sky-writing from a biplane – well, they’re still the best words a sport has to offer, still the best way to close the distance between the fan sitting beer-side, smiling, and the player on the field, squinting to see whether the next pitch is poison.
Take Pat Jordan’s “A False Spring,” for instance. Jordan’s memoir of one spring spent pitching for the Milwaukee Braves has this fine paragraph, hidden halfway through: “They all looked alike. They all arrived with a pair of spikes with plaid laces and a baggy gray sweatshirt with the name of their high school stenciled across the front. They gravitated to their kind and were indistinguishable one from another, so that all the coaches and managers and scouts called them ‘Red’ or ‘Lefty’ or ‘Stud,’ and when they did, more than one head turned in response.
Few of them ever made a club, and their contracts, which were just kept in a drawer in Dick Cecil’s office, were never filled out. At the end of each spring Cecil would take those contracts from the drawer, pull out 1 or 2 from 60, and after stacking the rest in a neat pile thick as a telephone book, rip them in half and drop them in his wastebasket.”
Or how about the ending of “Bang the Drum Slowly” by Mark Harris: “He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.”
Or Red Smith on Bobby Thomson’s homer against the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds: “The second pitch – well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time . . . Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.”
So you sit in the back yard listening to the game on the radio and you can see, plain as day, some rock-head, block-hard hitter coming to bat while a string-bean, rubber-bodied pitcher winds up to send the pitch straight, one way, whistling-pop, the ump making the call before the ball even reaches the front of the plate. Thinking about it, even now, you get all mush-faced and teary-eyed, like half a hundred other springtime grumblers who sit there running their hands around a Gumbied pot-belly, telling good, round lies, one after another. They lean back in lawn chairs gone threadbare in the middle, poochers growing old in torn-up Panama hats, trumping each other with baseball stories until the sun goes down behind the brown hills on the other side of the road, the sound of crickets crackling up out of the grass.
One of the straw hats stands, sits down, thumbs through that 1971 picture-book, “This Great Game.” Turning to Page 209, he finds the Twins’ Cesar Tovar rolling into Baltimore’s Davey Johnson at second base, their legs and feet in the air, dirt spattering across the base. Johnson has already thrown the ball to first and he’s straining to see if the double play came off while Tovar falls in no motion, face-down, midframe, only his right elbow brushing the ground. Both men are crystal clear in the afternoon light, razor-sharp in that long second, stolen 30 years ago, the faces of the fans behind them going soft, losing focus.
Seeing that picture, there would be murmurs of middle-aged delight, lawn chair to lawn chair, and then someone would turn to a chapter in “Rain Delays” by Bert Sugar. “Y’all know Shoeless Joe couldn’t read or write, right?” he’d say, tipping back an old White Sox cap. “How about the time at Cleveland when this guy keeps yelling at him, ‘Hey, Jackson, how do you spell igno-ramus?’ and Jackson goes up, lines the first pitch he’s sees into center and says to the guy after scoring on the next play, ‘Hey, fatso, how do you spell triple?’ ” Come the chuckles, then, and another chair perks up with, “Remember what one writer said after Jim Palmer no-hit the Oakland A’s in 1969? ‘Well, there goes the A’s 113-game hitting streak.’ ”
Or somebody reads from Page 103 of “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book” – “In the seventy-five years or so that the World Series has been in existence there have been perhaps 1,200 pitchers who have pitched in it. Of these, Don Larsen is the only one to have pitched a perfect game. Like Sophia Loren’s marriage to Carlo Ponti, the continuing popularity of Danny Thomas, and the political career of Spiro Agnew, there is no rational explanation for this. It just is.”
Somebody pulls out “The Ultimate Baseball Book” and turns to Page 173, pointing to that picture of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig standing with Hack Wilson, sun-bronzed to the color of a coal mine, his shoes the size of Cinderella’s. The caption is full of one-liners about his drinking – “Wilson was a high ball hitter on the field, and off it,” and “Gin was his tonic.”
There’ll be ha-ha’s all around about that, and then another story, and another, until the memory of a Roberto Clemente takes over, dropping back and dropping back and dropping back to glove the ball, as easy as that, in front of the fence. And sooner or later you’ll point to one of your favorite mind-pictures from the game, any game – when the first baseman tags the bag for the third out of the inning and starts jogging back to the dugout, looking down at the ball in his hands, rolling it around in his hands, before shrugging and tossing it to the mound. Just that one moment, you know, makes the days slow down, somehow, makes the game make sense.
The stories are fun. Telling them is fun. Listening to them is fun. Throwing stats back and forth like they really mean something, that’s fun, too. It’s the best time of year for baseball, this first week in April. They can talk about the deep whee of spring training or the jelly-leg of October, when players strut and smoke and wobble between fool and hero, but for true believers this is the time of year.
The batter steps up and the pitcher steps back and the ball is heading for the plate, both teams waiting for it to get there, each team holding close to that chance of going the whole way, of winning and winning, nobody thinking for one minute that they’ll lose and lose again and have to leave the room, packing their bag on the bedtop of a strange hotel, winding up on the cold end of autumn, wondering how the time could’ve passed so fast, leaving them behind.
That’s when you pull out one of Donald Honig’s books, turning maybe to the testimony of Wes Ferrell, who played from 1927-41 for six different teams. “It’s great when somebody comes along and tells you they saw you pitch, how good they thought you were, how much they enjoyed it. But little by little it dwindles down, until you’re back where you started,” Ferrell said, remembering.
“But still I’ve got those memories. I played against a lot of great stars. You name ’em. Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Gehringer, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, DiMaggio, Cochrane, Feller. I saw them all. And they saw me. You bet they did.”
They saw him best in April, when he was young and full of himself – when we all were young and full of ourselves, waiting for that first pitch, sweating and grinning and stamping our feet, standing back to see how good that baseball looked, going over the fence.