Monday, March 18, 2019

a news service

Good to Me

"God watches over drunks and third basemen."
Leo Durocher

While helping me pack my stuff, Jean found a zip-lock bag containing a pair of mangled spectacles, the gold frames twisted, one of the yellow plastic lenses in pieces. This was the zip-lock bag into which an ambulance attendant had dropped these former eyeglasses, as is the procedure, apparently, for his occupation.

In the Emergency ward of the University of British Columbia Hospital, there was a terrible odour. It was caused, we found eventually, by the dog manure attached to the soles and cleats of my turf shoes, the ones with the old dried blood on the tops of the toes. Angela would take these shoes somewhere and put them under the hot water tap, but this would be the last time, she said.

I knew my way around the emergency section of the UBC hospital. This was where I had looked at the x-rays after I broke my wrist on the same diamond a year earlier. For my other eye injury I had gone from a diamond on Eighth Avenue to Emergency at Vancouver General Hospital, the same place to which I had much earlier gone for my New Year’s Day concussion from our game at Twelfth Avenue. I have been to Emergency at St. Paul’s Hospital and St. Vincent’s Hospital, but not for accidents on the ball field.

Baseball has been very good to me.

I have glaucoma in both eyes, and pay a lot of money for eye drops. I also had cataracts in both eyes, so I had the lens in the right eye replaced by a piece of modern plastic. I’ve been on the shortlist for surgery on my left eye for two years—either that, or they have forgotten about me. I’ve had astigmatisms for most of my life, so I’m used to wearing specs, and wearing specs on the ball diamond. One of the causes of glaucoma is injury to the eye.

I lost one at second base and one at third. You could blame the fact that I was in my fifties and early sixties, so my reflexes were a little slow. But on the first one you could also blame the pebbles in the infield dirt at the park on Eighth, where the Write Sox played their home games.

This was in the Twilight League, which used to be made up of book writers and magazine writers and newspaper reporters. We weren’t playing the Write Sox. We were playing Mark’s team. This team kept changing its name, but we all called it Mark’s team. I remember our opponents that day because Mark’s team had this neat quiet handsome guy who always played in slacks. Now I can’t remember his name, but it is one of those classy male names like Warren, or Wilson, or Spencer. He is a polite, generous man, and he can hit the ball like a demon. He hit a nasty low liner just to the left of the bag at second, and all I had to do was put my open glove down and let it hit the pocket off a short hop.

Remember that we are playing fastball, not baseball. You are a lot closer to the source, if you are an infielder in fastball, and things happen a lot faster, though you don’t have as much territory to cover. The ball in question was coming at 115 miles an hour. It hit a pebble and went right over my glove and into my right eye.

No ambulance attendant would have been able to find all the pieces of those specs. They were made of glass instead of plastic, and when that hard softball hit, tiny spears of glass went everywhere, including into the thin flesh around my right eye.

Fast. That’s what you think. Cripes, that happened fast. Now there is blood on my white Adidas and all over someone’s shirt balled up and held against my face as I am being helped into Brian Fawcett’s car.

It’s a funny feeling, walking into a hospital in clacking turf shoes. After a while a microsurgeon showed up in his Sunday golf shirt, and he and Angela and Fawcett and I discussed my very good luck in not getting glass right in the eyeball. I did get a small fracture in my occipital bone. I felt the usual pride.

Other bones I have broken while playing ball: nose, finger, toe, wrist. Bones I have broken while not playing ball: hand, vertebra, toe, rib.

I was fascinated by my Uncle Amos. He had broken just about everything. Once a truck ran over him from foot to shoulder, then back down.

Wearing a cast is wonderful—the envy, the stink. Scars are good, but x-rays are even better.

It’s not hard to understand those young German nobles with their university sword fights.

"Just look at this angular scar under my eye, Fraulein."

"Ach, Derek, place your tired head on my ample bosom."

So Fawcett said that’s it. From now on I would be banned from the ball field until I got plastic lenses.

"But aren’t they susceptible to scratching?"

"You need to acquire some perspective on the situation," said Angela, or perhaps she said something in which the word ‘asshole’ was a noun or adjective.

"Perspective? I can’t see a thing without my glasses," I said.

But with all the amusing words and all the pride of injury, I had been afraid for my eyesight, and maybe even adjusting to a life of one-eyedness. I had kept the bloody shirt to my face, and had not removed it until the medical staff said that they had to get in there to do some cleaning.

So for a few years I got to play with blood on my shoes, and after a while the blood turned brown and faded. But it was a badge.

Meanwhile, I grew older and my reflexes grew slower. But I did not become smarter.

One luminescent evening in the nineties we were playing the Secret Nine on the grassy diamond behind Magee High School in leafy Kerrisdale. I don’t know what the members of the Secret Nine did for a living, but they didn’t seem like journalists. They were a recent expansion team.

All the people on that team, even the two women, were young and athletic and more talented than smart. Except for their pitcher. We liked him. He was older and left-handed and in possession of an ancient tiny baseball glove with no laces, such as that glove favoured by our own pitcher Jim. Steve, for that was his inevitable name, had a wicked curve, and the trouble with curveballs in fastball is that the pitchers don’t seem to have to take much speed off them.

This lambent evening, though, I was playing third base. My personal tragedy is that I have to be more knowledgeable than most people about things such as baseball and grammar. Most of the talented but otherwise ordinary third base players in the league would play behind the bag, as they do in baseball, probably out of a certain fear of line drives to the "hot corner."

So of course I would show them how it is done in fastball, crouch a few paces inside the bag (that is baseball talk meaning closer to the plate than the base is). This way, of course, you are ready for the bunt, or you persuade the batter not to bunt. But more important, if you are back of the bag you will likely pick up a grounder on the second bounce, and be too late to nab the runner at second or the hitter at first.

Did I mention that these Secret Nine guys were young and athletic? Do you know anything about arithmetic? I was crouching about 48 feet (ball diamonds are not measured in metric) from home plate. Jim fired an inside fastball at about 80 miles an hour, and the right-handed hitter swung his aluminum bat with such ferocity that the ball was probably propelled at about 110 miles an hour. For 48 feet.

I was wearing my beautiful gold-framed aviator glasses with yellow plastic lenses, really nice in the gloaming with an evening sun in the eyes of the third baseman and left fielder.

I never saw it.

Cripes, that happened fast.

Oh no, not again.

It was my left eye now.

I don’t remember any blood this time.

There I was, a sixty-year-old man in my old authentic Cleveland Indians road pants from the double-knit days, a University of Guelph tee-shirt, lying on the ground beside a really ugly baseball cap in the lush dying light behind Magee High School.

One of the Secret Nine guys used his cell phone to call the ambulance. They must have asked him how old the victim was. He said that the victim was probably in his thirties, maybe late thirties. I heard Gill, my dear friend Gill, let out one of her famous snorts, then her famous laughter that comes out between her teeth. Then she corrected the young man. I don’t know whether I was pleased or not pleased. I was preoccupied with the thought of opening my left eye to find out whether I could see. A part of me was adjusting to life with one eye. You don’t see very many infielders with one eye.

Whenever someone gets injured on the ball field his teammates have him lying on his back on the ground. When, as a kid, I got a line drive in the nuts while pitching at the Elks picnic at Okanagan Falls, though, Doc White tried to get me to lie on my front. I didn’t want to do it then, but I did, and the doc was right.

Now the docs were young ambulance guys, so off I went again, on my back on a fracture board that felt like a two-by-four in the rear of the ambulance. What is that all about, I wondered. I didn’t find out about fracture boards till my trip to the Welland hospital on the Labour Day weekend of 2003.

At the UBC hospital Emergency place, where you always wait your turn and do not die while doing so, I lay on my back in clothes no sixty-year-old is supposed to be caught dead wearing, and Gill had called Angela, so she was there again, and I had a look around me with my right eye, and looked at a grey lack of environment with my other, but the main topic of interest was the smell. The whole Emergency area smelled like dog manure.

"This is the last time I will ever do this for you," said Angela, as she removed my turf shoes. Imagine, you go to Emergency in an ambulance, and for the whole trip you smell like manure. She took my shoes somewhere and washed them, sort of. It would actually be a year or so before the dog manure was gone from the cleats, but it would disappear before the old blood spots did.

Baseball has been pretty good to me.

Yes, when I was at Air Cadet Camp in Abbotsford, BC, I was out playing catch with a brown baseball in the semi-dark of an August evening, fooling about, stepped in front of someone else’s catch, or he in front of mine, and a baseball broke my nose. It wasn’t the first time I’d had my nose broken, but this time I was at a government site. They would take me to Shaughnessy, the military hospital in Vancouver, to set my nose properly. I said no deal, because tomorrow was the day of the softball championship game.

It was us, BC, against Northern Ontario, and I don’t know how it happened, but I was the catcher for the BC team. We had a star pitcher from Kamloops, named Jones, and I called him Smitty in my catcher’s chatter, or else his name was Smith, and I called him Jonesy. I mean I don’t know how it happened, because I didn’t usually make the team if it was representing something like a whole province, but there I was. My father was a catcher, and my mother was a catcher when she was younger, so that must have meant something, but you can’t rely on genes in baseball. For every Moises Alou there is a Pete Rose Jr. stuck in single A.

But I’d been doing all right. I threw out two runners at second base in one inning in the game against Alberta, and let me tell you—up to that time I did not have many glorious baseball memories. And now we were in the championship game.

But when game time came around, I could not squat and receive Jonesy’s pitches without blinking and even flinching, and my nose was too big for the mask. So for this game I played left field, something more puzzling than catcher. I remember making a grand running catch, but I can’t remember whether we were champions or the runners-up to Northern Ontario.

A few years later I got my nose broken by a baseball again, this time off the bat. My first broken nose came via a kick by Carol Wilkins, but that had nothing to do with baseball, so you won’t be hearing that story now. My third broken nose was perpetrated by a fist. How mundane.

The predecessor to the Twilight League was the famous Kosmic League, to which I will devote a chapter of this book. The longest chapter, as a matter of fact. During the 1970s some of the all-stars and no-stars of the Kosmic League would commit a traditional New Year’s Day ball game. A lot of people think that there is no weather in Vancouver during the winter, but they are wrong. This New Year’s game would be played under whatever conditions prevailed—horizontal rain, wet snow, bitter cold and bad hangovers. It was a lot of fun and featured amenities such as bonfires, crooked basepaths marked by day-glow orange paint bombs, and mulled wine.

We prided ourselves on playing no matter the weather, and some of us even desired to perform well despite winter arms and Christmas stomachs. I was, one New Year’s day, fortunate to be involved, as shortstop, in a lovely brisk double play. Unfortunately, the double play was completed when the ball landed in the glove of a young first baseman with more physical ability than awareness. He did not add well enough to know that the inning had ended with his putout, and started an around-the-horn with his powerful arm. The rest of us infielders were walking off the muddy field and toward the tub of warm red wine. Unfortunately, again, the young first baseman’s throw was directed toward me, and as I was walking toward the third-base dugout, it hit me on the temple.

I was knocked cold, and when I did come to, I knew what a concussion felt like at last. This time I was taken to Vancouver General Hospital Emergency, and that was not exactly embarrassing, but needed explanation, as the place was packed with people in bright skiing outfits, including those, like me, who were arranged on gurneys in the hallway. Well, not embarrassment—I was rather proud to be a softball injury instead of just another person with an expensive ski suit cut open by a young medico.

Imagine! Your brain rattling around inside your cranium. If you are an accident-prone amateur athlete, you really do get familiar with your bones. Or, say, amateur young lover—who breaks his hand by punching a concrete wall as hard as he can to impress his true love who sounds as if she’s getting ready to let him go.

But I told that story in another book, which was only partly about baseball.

* * *

Get familiar with your bones, and grow to love them. What is it about male athletes, and probably female ones—they seem to have a kind of homosexual fondness for their own bodies. It is a special kind of somatic narcissism. You see that in dressing rooms all the time.

You see a handsome guy with little in the way of clothing on, prodding some muscle, ruminative, a goony look of mild intensity on his face, this while he banters with a teammate or tennis opponent.

I run my palm and fingers over my knee right now, as I write on a house deck on the east side of Protection Island, taking time to check the boats and bird life. Once in the Kosmic League I was pitching, and took a line drive on the right. It did not break my patella, darn it, but for the next week I had a yellow and blue bruise that went in tentacles to my ankle and up to my hip. Oh, I had a crush on my right knee that week, unable to play, but able to wear shorts and stretch out my legs in the Zephyrs dugout.

That knee hurts right now, thirty years later. That’s something.

Kind of a homo-erotic attachment to your own body. A logger or a mail-sorter can get injured and not do it. Coriolanus had it, showing his war wounds to the citizens of Rome, trying to get adored and elected. He was more an athlete than a politician. He loved his scars. I have a basketball scar under one of my eyebrows, courtesy of a guy named Dino Cicci from Hamilton, Ontario. The collision under the basket happened so long ago that I can’t remember which eyebrow.

Have you seen bicycle racers in their lycro outfits, stretching their long muscular legs before the day’s race? Self-directed erotomania in the summer sun.

It was not that Coriolanus was proud of his war wounds. He loved them. When a ball player goes on the DL (disabled list), he has mixed feelings. Oh, not again, he says, thinking of his career; and hello again, familiar limp, pull up a chair.

In grade five, Mary-Ann Rutherford was not watching where she was going, and got hit in the head by a bat when she walked too close to the strike zone while a ball and a bat were also travelling through it. I have flinched every time I’ve thought about that in the past fifty-five years.

3078 w. September 17th, 2004

Post tags:
George Bowering

George Bowering

George Bowering lives in Vancouver, and dreams of Trieste. Poet laureate of Canada (emeritus), and twice winner of the Governor-General's Award for literature, he's the author of many books, including, recently, "Pinboy" (Cormorant, 2012).

More from George Bowering: