Michael J. Vaughn
Barry Bonds, Dodger Blue and
the Deaths of Mothers
Excerpted from the novel The Legendary Barons, which tells the tale of a softball team that manages to stay together for ten years. In this chapter, the shortstop/ narrator, nicknamed Honus, takes time to talk about his return to the "real" sport -- hardball.
You don’t have much control over the operations of memory, the way your brain goes about attaching certain images to certain events. This is why one of my biggest disappointments reminds me of Barry Bonds, and my greatest tragedy reminds me of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I got a job at the arts center soon after joining the Barons, and immediately recognized that one day I would see my time there as a kind of golden age. For one thing, I worked in a mansion, bequeathed to the arts center by a U.S. senator. For another, the job of publicity director demanded every one of my abilities: photography, writing, ad design, press relations, and public speaking. I felt fully and joyously employed. I got to meet great performers like Branford Marsalis, Jon Hendricks, Harry Belafonte and Dave Brubeck. I introduced my dad to his boyhood idol, Al Hirt. I was asked to sit next to Harry Connick’s lingerie-model girlfriend during his concert. I hung out with the artist residents and picked up little gems of knowledge: the place of repetitions and restatement in compositions (both literary and musical); the perfect touch of Sergei Rachmaninoff on piano; how to get bats to chase pebbles in the twilight.
I like to think it was my influence -- limping up the stairs each Monday with my war-wounds -- that brought my co-workers to baseball. We interrupted a staff retreat to listen to Will Clark stroke that pennant-winning single in 1989. We spent most of a staff party watching part of that incredible Twins-Braves Series in 1991. And our program director was at Candlestick Park the night of the infamous World Series earthquake (which also brought $500K worth of damage to the mansion).
A couple years later, the Gulf War took a major bite out of our ticket sales, and soon the art center was eyeing its first major deficit. Their first countermeasure was to terminate my position.
In later years, I would sniff out the politics behind my layoff; my duties were transferred to a marketing agency headed by our former box office manager. On the day I got the news, however, I held no bitterness at all. In fact, I ended up having to console my boss, who was pretty torn up about having to tell me. I was ready for something new, anyway, I said. The severance check would give me time to finish my novel. Looking back, I could’ve handled a couple more years of steady paychecks, but at the time I felt strangely relieved.
With my head full of thoughts, I stuck to my routine that day -- driving to a nearby high school to shoot hoops in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Mountains. As I played, I tuned into a baseball game on my radio.
It was playoff time, the Pittsburgh Pirates and a young Barry Bonds, who was already developing a reputation for fizzling out in the post-season. The Pirates were a few innings from elimination when Bonds finally erupted – three-run double, two-run homer, something like that – but at last he had led his team to a playoff victory. I shot three-pointers in the October twilight, thinking how nice it was that I had someone like Barry Bonds to root for.
A few months before, my softball pal Stevie Becker had invited me to join a hardball league for players over 30. It was great to go back to the “real” game and realize I could still play it. As a “hands” hitter, I avoided the usual perils of switching back from softball, even gained a reputation as a pitcher-killer, wounding four in two seasons with my shots up the middle. I hit .280 my first season, .390 my second, and even got a chance to play in the all-star game at San Jose’s minor league field. I played outfield, marveling at how long the fly balls took to come down, and filled in at second and third.
There were some fun moments. I fouled off a former San Diego Padres big-leaguer several times before striking out. I called my own hit-and-run, grounding the ball into right when the second baseman left to cover the bag. I tried a few drag bunts to take advantage of my Kirby Puckett speed (“speed in spite of a belly”). I also got plinked in the head by a curve ball that didn’t curve, and failed to turn a double play that would have kept us in the playoffs.
But it was all baseball, and it gave me a new perspective on softball, a sport where you didn’t have to contend with 90-foot basepaths, 85-mph fastballs at your chin, and runners with metal cleats. I also noticed that baseball players had more respect for their sport – precisely because it was tougher – and for each other. Suddenly, anyone who got too intense about the pinball machine of slowpitch softball looked pretty goddamn silly.
Another revelation was Stevie Becker, who cranked out homers at a one-per-game ratio, stole bases at a 90 percent success rate, and flashed around centerfield like a demon. I began to wonder why he had never pursued it professionally.
There were, alas, a few negatives. The Sunday doubleheader, a nine-inning/seven-inning combo, was brutal on aging bodies and weekend schedules. Our manager smuggled a couple of 28-year-olds onto the team, a complete violation of the spirit of the league. Third and most tragic, in a league where they wore major-league replica uniforms, Stevie and I played for the Dodgers. For a lifetime Giants fan, it would have been better to play in a hundred-pound suit of armor.
The thing was, though -- I needed that team, because my mother was dying. Once her colon cancer metastasized to her liver, I really think she decided to quit fighting it. Mom had gotten a real lemon of a body -- chronic hemorrhoids, bad feet, bad back, hysterectomy -- and I think she was just fed up with the whole ordeal. My dad gathered us around after her birthday party -- just before Memorial Day -- and told us she had three months to live.
I will always admire my dad for taking leave from work to look after my mom. But it had an odd side-effect. Beyond a weekly bed-watch, it left us kids with too little to do. So when the games came around -- softball on Friday, baseball on Sunday -- I suited up and went. I even seemed to play better, because it didn’t mean anything. I consoled myself with the knowledge that this is what my mother would want, her son out running in the sunshine, diving on the grass.
On a Sunday in June, I woke up early, took a shower, went through the ritual: pulling on the stirrups, lacing the belt through the pantloops. I was halfway through the door when I spotted the flashing light on my answering machine. It was my dad.
That’s how the picture will stay ever after, shafts of morning sun through the sliding glass door, big pine tree off the balcony, Hank Aaron’s 44 on my back, a 31-year-old man in Dodger blue, kneeling in front of his telephone, crying.
©2002 by Michael J. Vaughn