Hendrik Hoekema, 1944-2016, RIP
I was Henry Hoekema’s catcher for most of a decade from the mid-1970s into the 1980s. I suppose he was therefore my pitcher, but I never thought of it that way, because that’s not the way it works. Catchers belong to their pitchers, I belonged to Henry, not the other way around. And if not to him, then I belonged to the teams we played on, first the East End Punks, and later, the Zunks. Unlike the other players, catchers face their team on every play, and so a catcher is the one player who can see everything that goes on, good and bad. For a while, Henry Hoekema was what I saw the most clearly during the game.
It was Henry who talked me into catching, actually. So in a way, he created me as a ballplayer, and really, I wasn’t much of anything on a baseball field before I started catching, except an out-of-control ego. I don’t know what made him think I’d be good at catching. Maybe just he got tired of hearing me make smartass remarks behind him on the field, and thought that a catcher’s mask covering my mouth might shut me up.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but Henry even taught me to play the position of catcher properly, which is to say, not as the competitive hothead I’d arrived as, but with the kind of controlled absorption in the game catching requires, and maybe even with a touch of Zen. Zen isn’t a quality that’s often been associated with me, before or since. Henry had quite a lot of Zen to him, both on and off a baseball diamond, and a little of his baseball-Zen rubbed off on me.
Around the time he convinced me to start catching, he was himself teaching university liberal arts courses in B.C. Penitentiary, the primary federal maximum security prison in Western Canada. He sometimes arranged for ball teams to go inside the walls and play against the B.C. Pen Ducks, who were said to be the best fastball team in Canada. They probably were, too, given that softball isn’t played professionally, and the Ducks got to practice more than any team in the country. They were probably as close to professionals as the game had.
One of the teams Henry brought in fairly regularly was the East End Punks, the team he pitched for and for which I was the catcher. Henry was always cheerfully clear about what was going to happen when we played against the Ducks: we were going to lose, and we were probably going to be humiliated. The Ducks were big, strong, skilled ballplayers who, unlike us, practiced, and they were so physically fit that they sometimes parked barbells at the edges of the outfield so they could lift weights between innings.
I thought the weight-lifting was meant to intimidate us, but maybe they were ahead of their time, serious about fitness the way ballplayers are today. Whatever the truth was, Henry and I, both of us around six feet tall and weighing close to 200 pounds, would have been the smallest and lightest players had we been playing for the Ducks. And by far the most out-of-shape.
“Don’t take these guys too seriously,” Henry would counsel everyone as he was bringing us through the security gates. “It’s just a game.” And that, of course, was true and untrue at the same time, whether he was talking about the guards who were stopping just short of sticking flashlights up our asses to detect the contraband we weren’t bringing in, or the baseball team we were about to be crushed by.
Let me explain. As catchers go, I had a decent arm, and before my first game against the Ducks, Henry warned me that the Ducks were going to test it. I shrugged him off. Sure. Didn’t every team test my arm?
Not the way the Ducks did. The first Ducks’ hitter blasted a ball far over our right fielder’s head, a ball might still be rolling had not the prison’s wall prevented it—and stopped at first base. As I tossed the new ball the umpire dropped into my glove back to Henry on the pitching rubber (our right fielder, intimidated by the security towers, hadn’t tried to retrieve the game ball, and everyone else, the Ducks included, seemed to think that was sensible), the runner at first base grinned at me and pointed toward second. I trotted out to talk to Henry. “He’s telling you that he’s going on the first pitch,” Henry explained, deadpan. “You’ll have a six inch box on the left side of second, and if you can’t put the ball inside that box, you’re a goof.”
I won’t give you the gory details of my test failure, except to say that they tortured me for two full innings. Henry convinced me that it wasn’t humiliating by the way he doubled over with laughter on the pitching rubber whether I threw the runner out or my throw sailed over the second baseman’s head into centre field: what fun!
And the truth was that it was fun, except for the very sore arm it gave me. And as soon as the Ducks saw that I was hurting, they moved on to torment someone else: let’s hit everything at that skinny third baseman with the withered leg!
I caught about a hundred games for Henry over the years we played together, and I don’t have any idea how many of them we won. Not as many as we lost, that much I concede, and not because we always played teams as good as the B.C. Pen Ducks. We had a talent for playing just below the level of any team we played, which would have driven me wild before Henry taught me that winning wasn’t everything. Instead, I came to care about Henry’s low fastball, which wasn’t as fast as the one our other pitcher, Fast Eddy, threw, and it was straight as an arrow. Henry’s curveball didn’t move as well, either and he didn’t have much of a dropball, come to think of it. Henry just wasn’t much for deception.
What Henry did have was an attitude unique among the pitchers I caught. Part of it was a perpetual grin that made you believe in the glory of baseball. I can still picture Henry on a baseball field: he’s walking toward home plate in the ugly yellow paisley dashiki he nearly always wore, his shoulders slightly hunched forward as if a seagull was going to drop one on his head, or something worse, like a falling truck, or a nuclear attack, and despite the doom in his body language, the grin said, “Isn’t this great?”
Usually it was. I can still hear the clink of the spikes he wore to pitch but never once used as a weapon when he ran the bases. Okay, maybe that was because like most of the players on our team Henry ran the bases like a barnyard animal, I mean a cow, or a duck, or a turkey, and no, I have no idea why we always seemed to field teams where nearly everyone ran like we had a wagon full of rocks tied to our asses.
I don’t know how many people saw that grin of Henry’s, aside from his other catchers. It was at once a grin of pleasure and of resignation. It told you that things might not go well, but at least the choices were simple and decent: throw the low fastball, hit the corners—that was his best pitch—and then play whatever happens next. Sometimes the ball would arrive in my glove, a strike. But other times, maybe too often, it rocketed through the infield untouched, or landed far away in the outfield.
I think that Henry wanted life to be as simple, and for him, mostly, it wasn’t. Complications seemed to follow Henry around: difficult relationships, lousy job situations, health problems, you name the shit and he had more than his share of it. It didn’t quite make him an unhappy person, but you could sometimes see the disappointment in his face when he wasn’t covering it up. You could also see that he was going to do his best, and that it would be someone else he’d make the sacrifice for, or indulge, not himself. That, in a nutshell, was Henry’s Zen.
The news of his death got to me via an e-mail chain of people we’d both played baseball with. Most of the ballplayers who responded seemed unsurprised, and talked of Henry’s death as slightly premature but somehow strategic, almost as if he’d orchestrated its timing, got out while the going was good. I knew he’d been living with diabetes for more than twenty years, but I suspect other complications had arisen, and I’m guessing he’d lived with a lot of pain. The shared tributes to his character talked about his dedication to helping others, his love of a good time and hinted at difficulties. That’s clichéd, but it also sounds accurate.
Still, I have a slightly different sense of Henry, and it derives from all those times I watched him while he was pitching. He was unusually sensitive, and I got the feeling, behind the plate, that he was heart-broken about something—or because of something—that he wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, ever.
I mean this literally, and I have absolutely no evidence to offer for it except that expression I kept seeing, the combination of resignation and gratitude in Henry’s face. Then I put it together with his unbending need to help others, nearly always people to whom life had dealt a weaker or more unplayable hand than the one he held. His consistency in wanting to help people was beyond normal empathy, if there is such a thing. It was fundamental to his character, something he didn’t think about, or choose. The one time I did ask him about it more or less directly, he stared at me, puzzled. It’s possible that his need to help others was coming from so deep in his subconscious that he didn’t have any idea what I was asking.
That doesn’t matter now that he’s dead, and maybe it never did. What matters is that Henry did help a lot of people. In the years I knew him he helped a lot of people, and from what I understand, he helped a lot more over the last decades of his life. By itself, that makes a life worth living, even when it’s laced with heartache and physical pain. I’ve already admitted that I only knew this about Henry as a catcher watching his pitcher with what is called, in baseball lore, the tools of ignorance. But it’s worth saying that I also knew it—and know it still—as someone who has had an easy life acknowledging one that wasn’t easy.
Toronto, October 8, 2017, 1800 words