Jeff Smith noon, March 8
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 8
I’m jumping ahead here for a stretch because spring training has just begun, and baseball is in the air. In the summer of 1991, after I’d been laid off from my job delivering electrical supplies (a stint we’ll dissect in the near future), Karen and I had our penultimate separation. We’d gone through a fairly long stretch without too many “problems” -- not counting a miserable evening at Spalding Gray's show (a tale for another party entirely and nothing to do at all with the late great Mr. Gray) -- though we were both more restless and still, as always, moving in separate directions in our lives. While our trip across the country the summer before had felt like our swan song, as Karen had described it, we continued to chug along. Still afraid of that loneliness we both feared, we remained together. But then baseball season rolled around again, which Karen and I usually enjoyed, taking in a ballgame now and then, sitting in the bleachers with dogs and drinks. The 1991 season, however, would prove our last. As with many other couples, I’m sure, ESPN was ultimately to blame. And yet our situation was different, not a typical all-sports network relationship dispute.
I’d gotten, by way of a friend’s friend in L.A., a weekend gig working as a production assistant on an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast. The Pittsburgh Pirates and their Killer B’s (a pre-enhancement, smaller headed Barry Bonds and the hulking Bobby Bonilla) were in town playing the Padres. I’d be a peon with a field pass. It would be bliss. Of a sort.
I arrived eight hours before the evening game at what was then Jack Murphy Stadium, where the network crew was well into setting up, and where I wandered in like a rookie on his first day of camp. Several production trucks were parked inside the gates, and what looked like miles of cable were piled about, several crew members busy with the mundane and complex task of running it all around the stadium: out to every camera position, the booth upstairs, the dugouts and field, and everywhere else necessary for the telecast to occur.
Somebody finally asked me who I was looking for and I told them the name of the producer. I was quickly pointed to a short and energetic guy in his fifties, like a half-pint version of Rip Torn’s producer character from the old “Larry Sanders Show.” A lot of lightning from a single cloud. He spoke fast and to the point. I knew where the closest grocery store was, right? Yep. I knew where the Mission Valley Marriott was, right? Since I could practically see it from where he asked me the question, I answered an obvious yes. I knew the quickest way from the stadium to a certain private airline terminal at the airport, right? Uh, sure. Sort of a lie this was, but I was almost certain I knew the shortest route.
Satisfied with my answers, if not the length of my ponytail (I got the feeling a mullet would’ve reassured him more), and comfortable in assuming I was marginally sane, the producer gave me my ID (which included that treasured field pass) and told me that my first vital task was to run to the store and stock up on drinks for the crew. Lots of water, he told me, and Gatorade, soda, iced tea, get some of everything, and ice for the coolers. But mostly, he re-emphasized, I should get enough water to keep Shamu swimming in his tank. It was a hot September afternoon and his people needed to stay hydrated. He handed me a few hundred bucks in cash and told me to hurry as fast as I could. I was deflated at first, a gopher again, sigh, but it only lasted a few minutes, I still had that field pass. And at least I wasn’t buying ten-pound hamburgers and maxi-pads and blow for the Queen and Genghis-the-Con.
I filled two shopping carts at the Ralphs on Friars Road west of the stadium. I returned to the Murph and, on orders from mini-Rip Torn, proceeded to fill the three huge coolers next to the engineer’s table with ice and liquid refreshments. As I filled the coolers, I met the engineer who, along with another guy, drove that particular production truck from game to game, city to town, sport to sport, depending on the season. The engineer was a shorter guy, in his late twenties, skinny but tough, with a mullet for the ages (I saw several fine ones among the crew, thus establishing my feeling about the inadequacy of my conventional ponytail look). Mullet’s partner was bigger and blonde, and maybe a few years older, and he was hurriedly checking things off a clipboard list. Mullet and I made some small talk -- he was from Florida, football season was starting for him the next week -- and it also came out in our chatting that I did some writing, had a screenplay that was going around up in L.A., looking for an agent, yap yap yap. This got him talking about how his company, who owned the production trucks, had just dived into the film production game, and they’d just shot a movie starring that superstar of the silver screen, Jessica Hahn. I chuckled, to which he shot back “Hey, writer boy, you shouldn’t burn your bridges, man. You shouldn’t just burn ‘em like that. Who are you to laugh at anyone?”
“I’m no one at all,” I replied, finding it impossible to wipe the smirk from my face. “But come on, Jessica Hahn?”
I must accept here that most readers under the age of, say, thirty-five, will have little to no idea who Jessica Hahn is. For these members of the audience I will offer an alternate comparison. It would be akin to someone bragging to you about the action movie in which their company had just heavily invested, the star of which was Monica Lewinsky. For those under twenty-five, I offer this secondary alternate comparison: someone boasts to you that they just financed a movie starring Bristol Palin’s baby daddy. (Future generations should feel free to insert their own media dopes or celebutantes or whomever they deem, by reasonable standards of the age, worthy of ridicule and incredulity, and who could never possibly headline a feature film capable of grossing more than eighty-seven cents.)
After I loaded the coolers with drinks, it was time for the production meeting on the field. I had no idea what it entailed, or if I was even required to be there, but I heard “on the field” and I followed everyone there like a duckling following its mother. I’d been a young kid for whom the Los Angeles Dodgers and Little League Baseball were everything, where I laid all potential joy in my brief life. I worshipped the Dodgers of the 70’s – my infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey playing together longer than any infield in MLB history. I wept when they lost all three of their World Series appearances, to the A’s in ’74 (my first year following the team), then in ’77 and ’78 to the Yankees. Owing to the influence of Tommy Lasorda’s team, I’d switched batting stances late in my last season of Little League, changing from the straight and stiff Jim Rice stance to the more limber and bat waving style of my Dodger second-baseman, Davey Lopes. It worked wonders. Impersonating Lopes, I hit five home runs in our last four games. It’s hard for me to overstate, but baseball was literally everything to me as a boy, the only place I felt safe from all the family madness (fenced off from it by chain link and the rules of the game), and hitting those homers alone almost made up for everything else in my confused life. Almost, once again.
What ruined youth baseball for me, of course, were adults. My first Little League season, in 1977, we’d played a game against the Braves that was called because of darkness with the score tied at six. As we played every team twice, it was determined that we would finish the first game at that time, just prior to playing the second. When that day arrived, we resumed the first game where it left off, and it took us all of one pitch to end the contest. Our first batter hit the first pitch into the right-center gap, knocking me in from second base, giving us a 7-6 win. The second game was a rout; we were leading 15-3 when the mercy rule kicked in after the bottom of the fourth inning. We celebrated the two wins as we gathered outside our dugout to give the Braves the traditional postgame cheer: “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? Braves, Braves, Braves!” Then we tossed our mitts into the air and walked toward the other team to shake hands. But just before we reached them, the mother of one of their players charged onto the field, so drunk she was staggering, grabbed a bat from the dugout, then came at our team threateningly.
“You’re all a bunch of f-cking cheaters!” she slurred, swinging the aluminum bat wildly at us. “And I’m gonna skull every goddamn one of you!”
We stopped in our tracks like the scared children we were, and we watched as the coaches tackled the woman, wrenching the bat from her inebriated hands. The handshakes we exchanged with the Braves after that were done in a stupor, police soon arriving to arrest the woman. The kid whose mother it was, I do remember, was removed from school the next week. Though I never knew him very well, I felt terribly for him. When a social worker showed up at the school to take him away, I had to run to the bathroom, overcome with emotion. I cried in the bathroom until a teacher, Mrs. Peet, heard me and came in to see if I was alright. “Couldn’t they have at least let him finish the school day?” I asked, saddened to an extent that surprised her.
Then, of course, there was Coach Dietrich, a bitter and fat little man with a thick German accent. His son, Roland, was such a nice kid, I could hardly believe he’d sprung from his father’s Axis sperm. During my second season of Little League, I sank into a terrible slump when things at home had become unbearable and we’d left my first stepfather. Late in our game against the best team in the league, I’d struck out with the bases loaded and one out, with our worst player on deck. As I skulked to the end of the dugout, depressed, Coach Dietrich yelled at me in his Deutsche dialect.
“Vhy don’t you get your MUTTER to take you to ze BATTING cages!” he ranted at me in disgust. “And maybe SHE can teach you how to HIT!!”
My mutter. Acehole. He knew my mother was getting divorced, he knew how personally he was mocking me – that I didn’t have a man in the house (not for a whole two weeks anyway) to teach me how to hit a baseball, and that I played like it. My teammates were dumbstruck. Even Roland, his son, was embarrassed by his outburst, and he looked like he wanted to crawl under the bench as much as I did. But I felt even smaller, if that were possible, tears welling up in my eyes. Bobby Burrell, a tough little blonde kid on our team, who was much like the brawling Tanner character from “The Bad News Bears,” jumped in to defend me. Bobby and I hadn’t been close when the season began, but Bobby’s mom and stepdad had also split up recently, and we’d been commiserating about our situations at practice. Now he was standing up for me like no one ever had, getting right up in Dietrich’s face.
“Shut up!” he yelled at the stunned coach. “You fat Nazi idiot! Such a big man, yelling at a kid over a baseball game! Leave him alone!”
Dietrich, unbelievably, didn’t say another word. My teammates were double-dumbstruck, though now also in awe of Bobby’s courage. Bobby walked to the end of the bench and sat next to me. He cracked a grin as he nudged me with his shoulder
“Don’t worry about it. You know how to hit, I know you do. The guy’s a moron. Even his own kid hates him.”
I thanked him for standing up for me.
“I don’t mind,” he replied. “But you gotta start doing it for yourself more.”
I knew he was right, but we had completely different personalities. He was a fighter, I was a pleaser. The inning ended when the batter after me, our worst hitter, struck out. Dietrich was fuming as we took the field. Bobby glared at him the entire way, muttering “Jerk” loud enough for the coach to hear as he passed him. I so admired Bobby’s toughness, we all did, but none more than me; and I wished, oh how I wished, that I could summon a bit of it from within myself. But I was never able to. I got backaches instead, and stomach aches, and allergies, and all the rest.
“Camera operators take note,” announced the ESPN producer, bringing me out of my daydreams, as we stood around him on the field during the production meeting. “We’re using high first and high third positions tonight, so we’ll have extra coverage.”
My feet were on the dirt just off the grass outside the Padre dugout, and it’s strange to realize today but, at that time, it had only been slightly more than ten years since my Little League days, since all that other torment and confusion. So recent, but so distant also, half a lifetime back then. What I was most conscious of at that moment was the infield grass. I was amazed how tightly clipped the turf was on the infield. It was as short as the Astroturf I’d seen, as low as carpet. It looked flawless to me. And it seemed a color I hadn’t seen before, its green almost fluorescent. I wanted to sprint into the outfield and dive onto its grass, to see if it were longer out there, as I was sure it must’ve been, but I stopped myself. The producer continued the meeting, relaying to us other information, none of it useful to me. All I could think about was using that field pass once the game had started. When the meeting broke, I returned to the production trucks to make sure my coolers were still stocked with cold drinks. As I added more water and soda, the producer approached me with two assignments.
“First, I need you to call The Butcher Shop restaurant,” he told me, “and make a reservation for four for Hall of Famer Joe Morgan at five o’clock.”
“Five o’clock,” I repeated. “Table for four at The Butcher Shop for Joe Morgan, got it.”
“No,” he huffed, “you don’t have it. I said make the reservation for who?”
He huffed again. “No, I said Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.”
“Oh, right, okay.”
He appeared impatient with me. “Say it back to me.”
I paused. Why are these guys always the same? I understood already, did I really need this snide lesson in ego management?
“Hall of Famer Joe Morgan,” I said to him majestically, using my most reverential Cooperstown tone.
“Good. After that, I need you need to go pick up Jon Miller from the Marriott. You know who he is, right?”
Of course I did. Jon Miller was the ESPN play-by-play man. His partner, soon to be dining at The Butcher Shop thanks to my incomparable reservation skills, was the aforementioned “Hall of Famer” Joe Morgan. They’re now in their twentieth season of doing Sunday Night Baseball, but that season was only their second. J and I had been huge fans, watching hours of ESPN baseball coverage. We watched Commissioner Giamatti suspend Pete Rose for life the way others might only watch the State of the Union address. I was excited to shuttle a sports celebrity, even if he weren’t a player or a former player. It was better than sitting by the coolers and making sure we had enough cold Crystal Geyser available at all times.
Just as the producer handed me the keys to the network’s rental sedan, however, I caught sight of Karen approaching. I was surprised to see her, and I didn’t know what to make of it at first glance, but I quickly took note of the unhappy expression on her face, and then I remembered clearly that I had forgotten to put her keys back in the house that morning. She’d left them in my car the night before, when we’d returned to her house from a movie. She’d reminded me twice as I was getting dressed, remember the keys, put back her keys, but she was half asleep and didn’t follow up. And, like an early onset Alzheimer’s patient, I’d forgotten about them. I was simply too excited by the ESPN gig, I guessed, and it must have blotted out my short-term memory. I tried to use this as an excuse, but Karen would hear none of it. She let me have it right there in front of several amused crew members: how irresponsible and selfish I was, how I didn’t listen to her, how immature I was in that respect, and how her roommate was going to be late for an important engagement because she’d had to give Karen a ride to the stadium and back.
Brought down to size publicly, I couldn’t really disagree with her either, and it was more than this incident. Since my night of infidelity with Cat months earlier, and then my reunion with Karen a few days later, where I’d told her it was all me, that I had to try harder, that I would…well, in reality, I hadn’t tried. We’d quickly reverted to old form, I know I certainly had. I’d made no attempt to try a “real” job or graduate school or anything else that would reassure Karen that I had a semblance of direction and/or a plan for the future (I was on unemployment, much to Karen’s dismay, when my friend in L.A. had called with this opportunity). I had as much of a plan as those naive “explorers” one hears stories about in school, who embarked on grand voyages with incorrect maps and romantic dreams, and who more often than not ended up stranded in the desert or on the ice or castaway on some uncharted island, eating beetle carcasses and rat tails, or their own shoes, and then each other. Which, I believed at that moment, Karen and I were finally in the process of doing. That’s what all young love does eventually, doesn’t it? Consume itself?
“I’m just sick of this bullsh-t,” she concluded. “I’m through with it. Grow up already.”
The producer turned and took notice of my being dressed down. The engineer and his partner were holding their laughter. Taking my medicine, I walked Karen to my car and retrieved her keys from the center console where she’d left them the night before. She swiped them from my hand with hostility. Her roommate Shauna now pulled her car alongside us. Shauna was far too skinny, and Karen and I both believed she must have had an eating disorder. She lived on nothing but Otter Pops and spoonfuls of peanut butter, which is literally all we ever saw her eat. She also thought she was special because she was dating the brother of a minor pop star. Not the minor pop star himself, but just his brother! I always felt sorry for the guy, it was obvious Shauna really wanted his brother and not him. She was a mess. And she never really liked me all that much. She always told Karen I was too young and directionless for her, as if Karen needed help figuring that out. But Karen didn’t like her all that much either, we’d even had sex on her bed once, to get back at her after she’d let Karen’s cat get out and hadn’t bothered to try and get her back in. Now Shauna was looking at me like I had ruined her entire weekend with my childishness, and Karen seemed to appreciate it, her expression even more disgusted: make him feel worse, sister, please, pour it on. As Karen started to get into Shauna’s car, I said “I’ll call you later, or in the morning.” But all I heard in reply was the fleeting end of “Whatever…” as she closed the door. They both snickered and shook their heads at me as they drove away. I’d never seen Karen so friendly with Shauna. Unsettling doesn’t begin to describe it. It was almost like seeing her with another man, it seemed that out of character.
I stood there in the parking lot, the pavement so hot beneath my feet I could feel it soaking through my high-tops. Again, I wondered: was that it with Karen? Would we ever talk again? It was long past time to get to L.A., I thought, family or no, it was time, and this TV gig was reminding me of that. If Karen and I never spoke again, fine, that would be that and I could get on with the hip and cool life I fantasized about. This feeling lasted approximately ninety seconds. As I got into the rental car, opposing fears of loss and loneliness began flashing down from my skull, warning shots from the deeper and more difficult regions of my brain, where the truly corrosive feelings of inferiority and rage often attempted escape. To keep these emotional inmates from breaking out, an excruciating pain tore into my lower back like a lion’s jaw clamping into its prey. I fought it, and I growled like an animal. I was not going to have to leave this great gig, there wasn’t a chance, this stuff was not going to break me. I was going to use that field pass during the game, dammit, I was determined. I growled some more and backed out of the parking spot. I slammed the car into drive, grinding it like my popping spine, and I made the short trip to the hotel.
* * * * * * * *
Jon Miller, ESPN’s lead play-by-play man, was waiting for me at the curb in front of the Marriott. And the heat was getting to him. A jovial personality with a broadcaster’s silken voice, Miller is stout and was even heavier then, and his bald head was beaded with perspiration. What really caught my eye, however, when I pulled to a stop where he stood, were his pits. He was wearing a light blue dress shirt, and he had the largest armpit sweat marks I have ever seen, at least on a person not passed out in a puddle of their own fluids or hiking through Death Valley in a wool tuxedo.
Please don’t let him be a jerk, I thought, as he opened the door to get in. Or I would definitely be getting fired for insulting the talent. It would just be too easy.