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LATE INNINGS

Spitball #34

     On the evening in August when things became clear to him, the METS beat the Cubs on a 9th inning home run by Darryl Strawberry. He heard the sweet solid crack of the bat and knew it was gone. The ball sailed up, arched, hit the concrete abutment 20 feet above his head, and dropped softly into his outstretched hands. He felt a transcendent joy that moment that extended into the next day when he realized suddenly and with almost perfect certainty that his future happiness and well-being were linked directly to the METS success or failure in the current baseball season.
     That it should come down to the METS performance made as much or as little sense as anything else. He had always tried to do what was expected of him and didn't fully understand how his life had reached the point it had. He realized at midlife that he was not destined for significant accomplishment or public recognition. The breakup of his marriage and separation from his children was harder to accept. The boy had always been difficult, but his daughter's sudden and open hostility cut deep. He hadn't seen her in the year since he moved from their house to the L shaped studio apartment with the stainless steel appliances.
     Sometimes he looked at his new life and saw an aging man living in a confined space that resembled a hospital room and mooning over an adolescent girl turned nasty. When this happened, it was particularly hard to keep the sadness away.
     The sadness was always there these days, perhaps had always been there just below the surface. The sadness was there because everything changed and the happiest things were finally just setups for worse sadness because they made you believe that you could keep the sadness away for good, which of course you couldn't.
     The sadness sometimes made him smile and cry at the same time because it was also a sweetness, because even while feeling the sun and wind on his face or making love or eating a splendid meal in the company of close friends he was simultaneously experiencing the inevitable loss of these precious things.
     He knew people who were relentlessly positive and optimistic at midlife but he came to believe they had simply mastered some techniques for keeping a distance between themselves and what they would finally have to acknowledge. He didn't know if they were better off this way or not, if lives based on illusion were to be preferred over the truths that seemed to have become unavoidable to him.
     One day quite involuntarily he began to view his work — his important, professional work — through the prism of the world's fragility, and what he saw seemed so meaningless and painful that he quit the following week. At loose ends, he went out to Shea Stadium one afternoon to see a ball game. He returned the following evening and from that point forward he never missed a game.
     He quickly learned the player's personalities and performance statistics. The depth of his interest surprised him. As a boy he had been a Little Leaguer and a passionate Brooklyn Dodger fan but he had followed no sports or teams since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1959.
     And now, more than twenty-five years later, the METS were trying to come from behind to win the title in their division, and by June he was sensing a parallel between the team's struggle for ascendancy and his own efforts to keep the sadness at bay.
     His best times were at the stadium. The deep green grass and pristine white ball against the velvet black of the night sky were achingly sharp and real to him. The players were like demigods, the roaring crowd fused into a single powerful force for victory. By contrast, the world outside seemed washed out, fragmented, without perspective or a clear sense of purpose.
     When he caught Strawberry's winning home run ball in the 9th inning that August evening, it seemed like a joyous physical confirmation of the sense of parallel destinies he was feeling. He knew this would sound crazy to other people so he didn't tell anyone. He wasn't totally sure he believed it himself, at least in the beginning, but it gave him energy and focus and a sense of participation in a classical drama as cyclical and renewable as the seasons of life. Later, he would recall that as a boy he had listened to Dodger games on the radio and at tense moments, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the games, he had made a number of promises to a God he didn't really believe in.
     September came. The METS entered the final ten days of the regular season 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals although sports commentators stressed that the METS were actually 3 games behind in the loss column, and this perspective seemed to offer a clear window into the dynamics of his life: Future victories might be possible up to a point, but past defeats were irreducible.
     By this time he had constructed a fairly elaborate cosmology that included a three tiered reward hierarchy keyed to the METS performance. If the METS won the Division title he believed he would be able to survive, living carefully within a narrow range of feelings and satisfactions. If the METS, additionally, won the National League title, he would be granted a degree of grace, a life of limited affirmation that acknowledged the power of the sadness. And if the METS went on to win the World Series, he would be able to face down the sadness, dance on it, kick it in the ass and banish it to the back burner of a fully lived life.
     He did not spell out what would happen, what would be required, if the METS failed to win even the Division title, but he knew it meant a different kind of confrontation with the sadness and one that he should be prepared for as well.
     The METS swept 3 games from Philadelphia while the Cardinals were losing 3 of 4 to Montreal, which made the two teams dead even as they headed into the final three game series against each other. Before the beginning of this conclusive series he went one sunny September afternoon to the roof of his apartment building that had facilities for sunbathing. A police siren caught his attention, and he walked to the parapet at the roof's edge and looked down eleven stories to the street. As he did so, the sadness struck him suddenly like a fist and he saw his own body like a broken splattered toy on the pavement below. He went back to his apartment, lay down on his bed, and trembled.
     The METS won that night, but the Cardinals came from behind to beat them on Saturday. The final game of the regular season on Sunday would decide the Division title. He had purchased a ticket to this game from a scalper at twice the listed price, but as the day dawned bright and cool he felt a particular kind of lucidity and sufficiency, and he decided not to go to the stadium. He took the Times to the French bakery around the corner where he ordered coffee and a croissant and read the paper thoroughly. He read everything completely and with equal interest — national and local news, business, sports, the Living Section, obituaries. Returning to his apartment, he put his desk and papers in order, bathed, shaved, and changed into clean clothes. He called his daughter's private number and hung up when he heard her answering machine click on. A few minutes before game time he took a small portable radio and folding chair and went up to the roof of the building.
     He set up the chair facing south in the sun and tuned the radio to 1050 AM. The announcer was describing Doc Gooden walking out to the mound to begin the game for the METS. He had confidence in Gooden. Gooden had been somewhat erratic this season and often had problems in the early innings but he was the best the METS had and it was fitting that he should pitch the conclusive game for the Division championship.
     Although he was alone on the roof he said it out loud: "Doc Gooden's the best we have." And he smiled and felt warm in the pit of his stomach thinking about how good Doc really could be on his best days, and tears glistened in the corners of his eyes.
     The radio announcer described the windup. The first pitch was on its way to the plate.

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