I wondered what might happen if some cool writers looked back into their baseball-playing histories and created prose poem documentary baseball ‘cards.’ Below are the first five cards of a longer project I’m working on with some friends.
Wax Statues #1
RIGHTFIELD⎟ READINGTON JUNIOR BASEBALL
The hat, a light blue one year, a maroon the next, a yellow the last, remains on. The bill of the cap was bent in an arc: God knows that no child keeps things flat—it lets the sun sit above your eyes and earns a punch to the arm. The hat, light blue, then maroon, then yellow has the player’s name written on the inside of it—it is his and will always be his: the mesh wire, the plastic teeth. The ink leaves a blue smudge across his forehead—his name printed in reverse in skin and sweat. After games this would be the only mark made: the black cleats remained clean from kicking dew off outfield grass, the blue, the maroon, the yellow pants with no dirt at the knees, no evidence of hustle. Yet the blue above the eyes would only come off with scrubbing: saliva and thumb, soap and rag on the skin until the face turned red—the unceremonious removal of ashes.
HT: 5’1” WT: 120
THROWS: LEFT BATS: RIGHT
BORN: 11-22-1982, NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ HOME: READINGTON, NJ
The sound of the ball hitting the bat is replaced with the sound of the ball hitting the back: crowding the plate, sure, but it is because Oliu knew no better—did not know the proper place to stand, did not know how far back his bat should be held. The ball: slow, high, inside, strikes the right-fielder square between the shoulders, a place he could not touch if he tried, even if he bent his elbow and dipped his shoulder just so. Other times, the ball would hit him in the meat of his arm and drop to the dirt without ceremony, like another dead bird into a window, like a stubbed toe. He would drop the bat and begin to make the shortened walk to first base as all of the parents clapped in unison, hands against hands with a tinge of sympathy, the occasional shout to hustle, to shake it off, to pretend it never happened.
Wax Statues #2
It’s not the girl that matters but the poplar branch, which came down in an ordinary summer storm. Poplars root readily from clippings or from broken limbs that litter the ground, so some boughs will bloom where they fall. When does a branch become a new tree? When is a seed no longer a seed? It’s so hard to tell when one body becomes another.
HT: 4’11” WT: 81
THROWS: RIGHT BATS: RIGHT
BORN: 08-09-79, MINNEAPOLIS, MN HOME: MINNEAPOLIS, MN
There was a bat, sure, a peeled length of poplar she pulled from the woodpile at the edge of the backyard. She touched it to her nose because it was November, she had her mittens on, and she wanted to feel the touch of it somewhere on her skin. She swung at the flakes that had just begun to fall, that were falling now so separately, that were melting before they even settled into snow. She swung the bat and heard the wind’s slight hiss. She swung the bat and heard a cardinal abandon a branch. She swung the bat and heard the breath of a window being shut in the bedroom where her grandmother lay. She swung the bat and heard a train the moment it enters a tunnel, and she thought of all those boxcars with their hidden cargo, not circus animals like she once thought (giraffes nuzzled up against each other in the lullaby of the engine’s jounce), not heaps of grain, but cold containers jammed with scrap, with fist-sized hunks of coal. She swung the bat and thought of train cars stamped with Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which she began to chant into the stadiums of dusk that were now assembling out of air—Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Burlington Northern Santa Fe—so that the words, as if struck, sailed westward over the treetops and across the grasses of the Great Plains.
Wax Statues #3
The dugout has been dugout by grounders, a long tradition of boys closing their eyes and praying to God that they would not be struck. But once, this kid Hollars forgot to pray and ran the bases backward, starting with the pitcher’s mound and heading to third, to second—forget about first—homerun! The crowd went wild, and so did the umpire, who didn’t know what to call him. And once, this kid Hollars forgot to pray again and his dog died. He’d rather not get into it. He was stirruped and baseball-hatted, only he was no base stealer—not quick enough—and the oncoming car was a fastball. A line drive, a well struck hit centered in the sweet spot. Blood on his batter’s gloves, blood on his cleats. He would not forget to pray again.
Mid-game, the coach called, “Somebody get this kid an RC Cola. Somebody get him some Big League Chew.” A taffy, a licorice whip—anything to get him through the inning.
HT: 4’8″ (SLOUCHING) WT: 100
THROWS: RIGHT BATS: RIGHT
BORN: 5-25-1984 HOME: FORT WAYNE, IN
Wax Statues #4
PITCHER/1B ⎟ RED SOX
A skinny blond kid is on the mound. He’s wearing a Red Sox jersey, which is really an iron-on t-shirt, and a red hat with a felt white B. His body is post-windup, approaching his arm’s release point. His mouth and cheeks are contorted, a sideslip into a kind of horror, as if Godzilla just swallowed the original batter and is now wigwagging the bat. There is a reason for this: the moment a pitch is discharged at maximum velocity (the other second-graders are convinced that our pitcher can throw harder than anyone, but in a few years this will toy with Robby’s psyche until he realizes—much, much later—that he was simply taller and closer to the catcher’s mitt than the other seven year-olds) is an emotional crank lever. Composure disintegrates. The pitcher, like a parent, learns to manifest and release their love, and prepare for its demise.
HT: 4’3” WT: 49
THROWS: RIGHT BATS: RIGHT
BORN: 11-15-69, BREA, CA HOME: BREA, CA
As Captain of the Red Sox, Robby led his squad to the Brea Little League Single-A Championship Game. Some attribute his role as Captain and cleanup hitter to the team’s head coach, his father, but that debate has no place here. Robby’s crowning moment was knocking a three-run shot in the final inning to defeat the Astros in the semis, even if you do put stock in the fact that poor Tim Scaffidi should have never been placed in left field at the end of a crucial contest, or that the round-tripper was not a moon shot, but a luckily-placed grounder that squirted through Scaffidi’s legs and, once retrieved, took Scaffidi two throws to get back to the infield. Of course, by then our hero had touched ‘em all, and the Red Sox side of the field fell into jubilant mayhem, Robby embracing the celebration as a promise, the unveiling of fate’s grace. Coach Stapleton piled the entire roster into his pickup bed, drove to the corner 7-11 while laying on the horn, and bought Cherry Slurpees for everyone. As for the title game against the Yanks, or fate’s betrayal, this is also not the forum for those discussions.
Infamy Insert #1
THE SNACK BAR
Just a big plywood box with a silver lock and sloping roof, a silent clunky jungle gym to climb and stand on most days, but as the bleacher seats begin to fill the hinged window lifts and locks to become a sunshade awning and inside are moms clad in team colors, eye-candy displays in this Cabinet of Wonder, actresses seen only from the waist up like on the new family RCA color TV (with spinning concentric dials your dad won’t let you touch). Inside is a World of Color—unlike the muted neighborhood Helms Bakery Truck displays, smooth sliding drawers of brown and white iced donuts and loaves of bread smelling like manna at the cul-de-sac curb—though these treasures were just as magical, just as anticipated by you and your friends, bouncing in place there, wishing for time to move faster. Then, at last, the communal breaking of ABBA-ZABA bars, the sharing of licorice whips and sunflower seeds poured into upturned palms, even into hands of friends of friends that you never really talked to except here, but it was here that you knew you were part of the tribe, the adolescent church social, a cathedral of chain link casting checked shadows across windbreakers and banana seats on stingrays. Here behind the field of play on Sunday afternoons, relatives long dead now sat and enjoyed the sunlight on their shoulders as if soaking in every detail. Strange treats you would never again know. Sugar dots stuck on paper strips, in rainbow order, sold by the inch. Tiny wax bottles of red nectar, licked out in drips, the empties suctioned to tongue tip and waggled back and forth at that girl you wanted to kiss but could only make laugh at your foolishness. And so she remains there in your memory, forever turning away to watch her brother’s at bat, and you chewing the blank wax like flavorless gum, staring across the park, the school playground beyond, the flagpole pinging.
City maintenance workers razed the Snack Bar on a fall morning while you were thinking of something else. Had you been there, you might have protested, or maybe just asked to climb on top of it one last time and carefully rise to stand, on tip-toes, straining to see something more in the distance. And even as you remember it now it is better in your head than it really was, the paint flakes forgotten, the termite sand accumulating around the studs you never even saw, the facade changing like the faces of all of those friends, those whose names you forget more than recall. Sonny became a car mechanic, but you wouldn’t know that. Dennis’s sister drowned in a pool. Brad became an alcoholic who recycles forklift flats, and you passed him one day when you were at the mall but you didn’t recognize him. They are gone from your life now, like the great monuments of the sport you still study and love more than most people do their religion. Sure, Fenway and Wrigley still remain, and Vin Scully’s voice from a radio speaker each Spring you no longer take for granted, embracing its presence as you do your old dog, trying to remember the details, this beauty here all around you now: Remember this now. It is through the arc of your love affair with the game that you have come to understand the importance of commemoration, the error of sentimentality. History flattens all, one dimension at a time. Team pictures remain in a drawer, but no photos of the Snack Bar, just an imagined outline in the space it once was, like the ghost of Ebbets Field in the minds of another generation still, still floating between apartment towers like a fog. The studs and backstop yanked from their moorings, the diamond paved over to become something else, changed by the world again and again, but sometimes, just before falling asleep, you can still see a detail, catch a glimpse of left field between shadows—just as the billboards and light towers of Tiger Stadium no longer rise, yet flat patches of grass and clay can be found right there where they have always been, waiting like a patient dog to be noticed.
About the author:
BRIAN OLIU is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His work is featured in Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, Sonora Review, WebConjunctions, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. KATHARINE RAUK’s poetry chapbook, Basil, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. She lives and teaches in Minneapolis. B.J. HOLLARS, former first basemen for Farm Bureau Insurance, is currently an instructor at the University of Alabama. ROBERT STAPLETON is the Editor of Booth and teaches at Butler Univeristy. GRANT HIER is Professor of English and Chair of Liberal Arts at Laguna College of Art and Design. A few years ago Vin Scully invited Grant up to his announcer’s booth after reading mention of himself in Grant’s poem, “Untended Garden”—that was a good day.