By Josh Wilker
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What can a new father learn about parenthood from reading sports almanacs? For most dads, the answer to this question is: nothing. But to Josh Wilker, whose life and writing have been defined by sports fandom, all of the joy, helplessness, and absurdity of parenthood are present between the lines.
After all, what better way to think about losing control than Eugenio Velez’s forty-five consecutive at-bats without a hit? How better to understand ridiculous joy than the NFL career of Walter Achiu, whose nickname was “Sneeze”? In the stories of sports figures large and small, Wilker finds the pathos in success and the humor in losing.
As the terrified father of a one-day-old, Wilker recalls the 1986 World Series, when the moment was too big for the Red Sox. When he finds himself stealing away for an hour of alone time, Wilker thinks of boxer Roberto Duran, so beaten by Sugar Ray Leonard that he finally gave up. And yet, even as the frustrations and anxieties build, Wilker remembers Mets pitcher Anthony Young, who broke the baseball record for most consecutive losses — and never stopped showing up.
Finding the richness of life in obscure wrestling maneuvers and pop-ups lost in the sun, Benchwarmer is a book of unique humanity and surprising wisdom.
Copyright © 2015 by Josh Wilker.
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Book Design by Jack Lenzo
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Benchwarmer : A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood / Josh Wilker. -- First Edition.
ISBN 978-1-61039-402-4 (e-book) 1. Sports--Miscellanea. 2. Sports--Anecdotes. 3. Wilker, Josh. 4. Sportswriters--United States. 5. Fatherhood--Anecdotes. I. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Who could ever come before Aaron, Hank? That's what I used to think. Because of his name, he started all encyclopedias, at least the ones I cared about, and because he'd pummeled major league pitching with metronomic constancy for over two decades, he also reigned over the most revered of sports lists: career home runs. From an early age I looked for order and wonder and calm in such lists, especially that list, so his alphabetic primacy felt majestic, a manifestation of divine right. After Aaron, Hank, the progression of players from A through Z was shapeless, good giving way to bad and bad to obscure and back to good or inane or nondescript or anything or nothing. Yet this otherwise indecipherable sprawl of names began, beautifully, with the All-Time Home Run King, Aaron, Hank, and so the world made sense.
Over the years this evidence of a guiding intelligence in the universe survived the disintegration of childhood, the combination-lock loneliness of high school, the panicking digression of college, the flailing and torpor of unemployment, underemployment, employment, the years behind a cash register, the years as a cubicled temp, the years waiting for buses and untangling the wires of headphone buds and memorizing reruns and on hold with the help desk, the graying, the receding, the unstoppable ear hair. Through it all, no matter what, Aaron, Hank, came first. Then, at some point when I wasn't paying attention, David Aardsma slouched toward a major league mound for the first time.
What can you make of David Aardsma? He's never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. Not long after his name started appearing at the bottom of box scores like equivocating textual marginalia—an inning of relief work here, a third of an inning there—the unambiguous order-centering legend he supplanted at the head of the alphabet also had his home run record surpassed, acrimoniously, ingloriously (see ). I was almost forty. I'd never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. My wife was a little younger. We'd been married for a while, and the years were starting to lurch by like ghostly freight cars. We talked sometimes about having a kid. I wanted to get everything sorted first. But the world just kept getting more unsortable. I no longer even knew where to begin.
Addition by Subtraction
Nonetheless, eventually we started trying. Nothing happened for a long time. I assumed there was something wrong with me. This is my default explanation for everything: I'm lacking. Wherever I am / I am what is missing—so goes a piece of a Mark Strand poem I learned in college and have clung to ever since. I even clung to it one morning when it seemed like something might be happening. Abby set up an appointment with her doctor to find out for sure. I rose before she did on the morning of the appointment and wandered to the window, a hollow of hope and dread in my stomach, and those lines of poetry pulsed in my head.
I was in Chicago, had been in Chicago for years, had no clear answer for why I was in Chicago. I noticed a man across the street with his hands on his knees, his face aimed toward the sidewalk. I thought he'd dropped his keys. He began puking. He puked for a few seconds, hunched and convulsing, splattering the sidewalk, and then he straightened and began walking away. The morning trickle of pedestrians up and down the block generally doesn't involve people vomiting, and for a moment I figured he was homeless. Night, day, inside, outside—who gives a shit? But he crossed the street, got into a newish car, and drove off. I had no clear answer for anything. I stared at the empty space where the car had been.
Abby got up and headed off to the doctor. Neither one of us was in the habit of believing good news, but even so, I had intended to spend the morning in a frenzy of unprecedented productivity. I wanted to get my entire life in order, catalog everything A to Z. But I kept standing there by the window, gazing out at the parking space. Finding a parking space can be difficult. Whenever I see one I feel the urge to get the car and park it in the new spot, simply to take advantage of the opportunity. A key element of this urge is that it's hypothetical, leaving out my lifelong struggle with parallel parking. I imagine filling these empty spaces flawlessly. But if I ever successfully executed this urge, I'd be creating an even fresher emptiness where the car had been parked, and in my experience urges give way to more urges, so I'd then be trapped in an endless perpetual filling of emptiness, moving from one open space to another.
"I move," the Mark Strand poem concludes, "to keep things whole."
Teams that arewill sometimes resort to transactions considered to be cases of "addition by subtraction." A member of the team is identified as an entity worse than neutral. Removing such a player even when getting nothing in return will, the thinking goes, improve the fortunes of the team. But taking away one or more of the team's primary examples of disappointment will not put an end to the general disappointment, which is unstoppable, and it could be argued that the term "addition by subtraction" is not one used as part of a blueprint for improvement but rather as a way to level a complicated insult at one who has so stingingly disappointed, a way to say to that person: you're worse than .
I tell myself such things all the time, always have. Piece of shit. Useless. But where am I going to go? You can't trade yourself out of your life. The only way to addition is addition. More life, more love. I pretend to understand this. I want to understand.
When Abby returned from the doctor I was at my desk pretending to write. I could feel her in the office doorway behind me like the sun coming free from clouds. I swiveled from all my pointless transactions to her. She was smiling.
I rose from the chair. Was risen? Think of unbuckling into the weightlessness of a space station, gravity subtracted. Think of wanting something to hold onto. Think of a base runner adrift, daydreaming while an infielder sneaks in behind him. Think of a journeyman adrift, scudding without impact year after year from team to team, or of an entire team adrift, playing out the string in the haze of mathematical elimination. Then think of the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. That was me, adrift, looking down at my beaming wife.
"So?" I said.
"It's official," Abby said.
Think of a guy adrift from any solidity. Even the seemingly inviolable notion of time slips away. Suddenly we were looking for a new place to live. Suddenly a doctor was moving a jelly-covered wand over my wife's little belly bump, the white noise ushering out of the monitor forming into a rushing rhythm, a heartbeat. I thought of this tiny pumping heart and tried to cry but couldn't. A few weeks after that we sank most of our savings into a down payment on a condo where things immediately began to break. People started giving us clothing. I would hold these miniature garments in my hands and be convinced that the whole idea was impossible. The due date careened toward us. My wife's belly grew into a wrecking ball. I braced myself.
A few days beyond the due date Abby and I took two canvas folding chairs to the edge of Lake Michigan and sat with our feet in the water. We sipped beer from blue plastic tumblers and passed a canister of original-style Pringles back and forth. Amplified chanting from a large Hare Krishna rally nearby wafted toward us on the breeze. A wiry man in a scuba mask and snorkel waded past us out to a waist-high depth and shoved his head under the surface briefly before straightening and lurching back toward shore. To his right a young girl bobbed in the water, clinging to a bright orange life preserver and barking orders at an amused, sunburned oaf.
"No smiling, Daddy!" the girl said. "You don't smile!"
The wiry scuba guy stalked past us back toward the city, his breath whistling angrily out his snorkel. I looked from him to my wife's huge belly, then to her face, those pale blue eyes, a few faint freckles, each one beloved. The chanting persisted, swirling, spiraling, melancholy, endless. The cool water was lapping over our bare ankles. My wife's dazzling face, the whole dumb world aglow. Again I tried to cry but couldn't. I've never been able to cry about my life but only over aging sports heroes getting their numbers retired.
Abby writhed on a hospital bed. I stood beside her. A large monitor was beeping. My feet seemed to not exactly be connected to anything.
"I can't do this!" she said. "You don't understand."
"You can do it," I said, but it came out like a question.
She was suffering the relentless knifing pain of pharmaceutically induced labor and looked past me to search the faces of hospital staff for help. She knew I could tell her nothing. This had been going on all day, all night.
"You can do it," I continued to recite.
In the first few hours she had been able to hobble to the adjoining bathroom and vomit. When she became immobilized she used a wastebasket. At some point I carried it to the bathroom to rinse. I caught a glimpse of a grizzled figure in the mirror. Calvin Schiraldi, Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the moment too much.
"Hey," Schiraldi murmured as I was leaving.
"No, you don't understand, I can't do this," my wife was saying.
Nurses and specialists huddled around her. I got up near her head with the puke bucket.
"You can do it," I mumbled.
Eventually I was subtracted from the room so Abby could receive an epidural. She'd hoped to avoid this back when we imagined that together we could visualize away the rumored pain of contractions. We'd simply ride rising and falling waves.
During the administration of the shot into Abby's spine I sat in a little waiting room alone. It was two or three in the morning, somewhere in there. I stared at the dim institutional carpeting, hoping and praying, two activities of limited if not altogether invisible impact. I waited.
What kind of asshole, his wife in agony, naps? I fought it, but it kept pulling at me. I'd drift off in my chair for a second before wrenching awake. Then sleep would pull me down again, some brief, shallow version teeming with visions. Figures in motion, senseless, sprinting, hurdling, vaulting. Then I was in motion, drowsing on a bus, a grizzled figure seated beside me, Calvin Schiraldi again. The moment too much. When my head grazed his shoulder, the gray away-uniform sleeve, I snapped awake. I glared at the waiting room carpet.
"Please, please, please," I said, punching and punching my thigh.
I wanted Abby to be all right but couldn't do anything about it. I was scared that the epidural would lead to some kind of complication. I was also scared it simply wouldn't work, that we'd have to go on as before, one of us in spasms on a hospital bed like a fish suffocating at the bottom of a boat, the other standing alongside, powerless, hoping and praying. I was scared that the moment would be too much, that I'd be faced for the first time in my life with true adversity and that it'd go down for me like it had for Calvin Schiraldi.
Calvin Schiraldi had been a rookie in 1986, brought up from the minors in midseason. The Red Sox had jumped off to a fast start that year but had a distinct flaw, a hole at the end of their bullpen. The rookie filled this hole instantly and flew through the regular season virtually untouched, relying on a blazing fastball to rack up strikeouts and saves and a stunning 1.41 ERA. He didn't face any adversity until the playoffs, and then he seemed to handle the first tremor of misfortune well, following up a blown save and loss in Game Four of the American League Championship Series with two scoreless appearances in Games Five and Seven. He extended this scoreless streak into Game One of the World Series, in which he earned a save. He didn't pitch again for a week, when he was brought in to close out Game Six, which would have given the Red Sox their first World Series Championship in sixty-eight years. He gave up one hit, then another, then another. Schiraldi took the loss in that game and in the decisive Game Seven two nights later. The look on his face in those two games as the adversity mounted, as it proved too much for him, has haunted me ever since.
I drifted off to sleep again. The bus was crowded. We were headed somewhere where we wouldn't be bothered, somewhere painless. We were being subtracted. The passenger at my side leaned so close I felt his unshaven cheek on my own.
"Hey," Schiraldi murmured, and the bus began to speed. I snapped awake. The careening of the bus carried over into this world for a moment, the empty waiting room seeming so much to be racing down a sharp incline toward impact that I grabbed the armrests of my chair.
Agony of Defeat, the
In a famous video clip a ski jumper hurtling out of control down the steep ramp tries to stop himself, almost appearing as if he wants to gently sit down. Who hasn't had this hope? The one that goes, Just stop, please. I changed my mind. Can't we just stop? But it's too late. Gravity has taken over, history has taken over. He flails off the ramp sideways, flipping and whirling into the air before smashing down onto the slope. When first aired during the opening montage of the weekly show ABC's Wide World of Sports, the clip elicited gasps and grave concern. As the years went on, the footage evolved into a warm constant. The catastrophic fall punctuated the voiceover phrase "the agony of defeat," which was preceded by the phrase "the thrill of victory"; victory was illustrated over the years by a rotating roster of images of winning, but the clip for defeat never changed. It was always a Yugoslavian ski jumper losing control of one of his efforts during a competition in Oberstdorf, West Germany, in 1970.
Yugoslavian? West Germany? Thrills come and go, winners come and go, even borders and nations come and go. But the agony of defeat guy abides. Beloved was this guy, who happened to be named Vinko Bogotaj. At a star-studded thirtieth anniversary gathering for ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1991, Bogotaj received the loudest ovation of any of the internationally famous athletes assembled. Muhammad Ali asked him for an autograph. But if you stay with anything long enough, you see that nothing abides. The footage of Vinko Bogotaj is fading from the world. ABC's Wide World of Sports was canceled long ago. The concept of a weekly show is itself disintegrating. You can still find grainy clips of the show's opening sequence on the Internet. I watched it recently and was surprised by how quickly Bogotaj came and went. In my memory—watching on Saturdays, a morning of cartoons behind me, a bowl of SpaghettiOs with meatballs in my lap—his fall went on and on. But it's over, naturally, in the time it takes Jim McKay to say seven syllables. The footage cuts off as Bogotaj bounces up from his initial impact. He is rising. He rises into the mind to fall and rise and fall and rise. In my mind he tumbles, rising and falling, rising and falling, down a mountain forever.
The epidural worked for a while, then gave way to more agony, even worse than before. I can catalog the bullshit miscellany of life but can't find words for what my wife endured nor for the way it finally ended: a blood-slick newborn tumbling out into the world face-up, a boy, tumbling then rising up wailing, choking, wailing, to me.
The world once made some sense to me, based on all my childhood sorting, based on the encyclopedias that enabled this sorting, gleaming as they were with pure facts, or so it seemed. I loved those facts, loved every game that made them, loved baseball, football, basketball, boxing, tennis, golf, hockey, soccer, auto racing, bike racing, horse racing, boat racing, sprinting, swimming, skating, slaloming, diving, hurdling, flinging, vaulting, tumbling, lifting, leaping, anything and everything that bred winning and losing, greats and nobodies, grace from chaos. I loved it all, and it gave back to me a beautiful undulating order, a way to understand the world. Over the years that way of holding the world dissolved. Life goes on, doubts increase. I'd never been someone prone to thrusting myself into the middle of the action—from the beginning my encyclopedic approach to the world was a way to hold it at arm's length, to be a spectator, a fan—and as I grew older my tendency toward the sidelines only increased, as if I were seeking a still point from which I could gaze safely out at the baffling blur. But where is there a still point? Where is there an encyclopedia with facts beyond question? There's no moral order to any alphabetical listing, just as there's no Home Run King anymore. Here's what reigns: *
It's always lingering, that stick-figure star, waiting to attach itself to any name, any win, any moment of bliss, to twist itself into the skin of certainty and connect it to equivocating textual marginalia. It has most commonly happened after the fact, such as in the case when one of the most accomplished athletes ever, Lance Armstrong, was found to have been illegally doping his blood and had all seven of his Tour de France titles retroactively stripped, necessitating the affixing of asterisks to any encyclopedia's mention of victories attached to his storybook name. But it can happen before the fact too, as in the case of the current holder of the record for career home runs, Barry Bonds. Because he was generally assumed to have used banned substances to enhance his already prodigious skills (and perhaps also because of the widespread perception that he was a surly asshole), Bonds, in the court of public opinion, had his name branded with an asterisk even before he dethroned Hank Aaron. This preemptive affixing of asterisks is becoming the norm, as if soon all transcendence will be suspect, all facts leaky, unsound, all pinnacles shadowed with doubt.
Pushing against this blooming of asterisks is my compulsion to put words to the very first minutes of my son's life. But I can't find words except to say that in the very first minutes of his life I was seized with the belief that my love for him would burn all the shittiness of me clean away, leaving something pure. And it did—it does—but only for a moment. And then my failings return. It's as if some part of me doesn't want the life I've known to be wholly erased and replaced by something else altogether.
I need an encyclopedia for all my failings, my memories and fantasies, my desires and repulsions, my appetites and revulsions, my incremental invisible diminishment. I need an encyclopedia to explain the moment when all my failings dissolved, leaving me defenseless. The baby in my arms jerked and reached and squalled. He was the only fact in the whole wide world. I was surprised by the life in him, the strength. I could barely hold him. We had a name picked out, but he was too new for it. In those first few minutes is what I will believe forever, despite myself. There were no words. There was nothing to which an asterisk could attach.
We spent a couple of days in a recovery room. Abby had the bed, I had a chair, and the baby was in her arms or my arms or in a metal thing with wheels on it. Nobody slept much. There was a window, but it faced a brick wall, and we kept the blinds down most of the time anyway, so it was never really clear whether it was the middle of the night or noon or somewhere in between. At one point I wandered into the adjoining bathroom. The baby had fallen asleep in my arms. My plan was to hold him with one arm for a few seconds so I could take a leak, but I only got the one arm about an inch away from the baby before wrapping it back around him and pulling him tighter to my chest. I wasn't ready for any fancy one-armed stuff.
I stared down at the object of my two-armed hold. There were moments in those first couple of days when I believed I'd just marvel at him unblinkingly for the rest of my life, but there were other moments when it all seemed too much and I had to look away. In this particular instance I looked from the baby to the big mirror behind the sink. I'd avoided looking in that mirror to that point, as I'd wanted to steer clear of any additional visitations from the overwhelmed unshaven reliever at the center of the Red Sox's 1986 World Series collapse. But it turned out that by this time, a day or so into my son's life, these visions of Schiraldi were in remission. The mirror contained only its usual occupant.
Caucasian, early forties, unruly receding hair, thick glasses, fairly tall. Not so tall as to suggest the high probability of a history as a college basketball player but tall enough nonetheless to have served as a backup to the backup forwards on the 1987–88 Johnson State College Badgers. Still generally as weakling-thin as during that season and all preceding losing seasons, but now with a minor yet irreducible thickness around the midsection. Gray-flecked Vandyke goatee grown in an attempt to cover the age-related disintegration of the jawline and to balance severe eyebrows and bulging eyes. In those bulging eyes: worry.
Worry had been with me for a long time but now had sprung into full bloom, due to the other face visible in the reflection: pink, tiny, crinkled, so new that flecks of his mother's blood still clung to the folds of his ears. The feeling of lightness in my arms was the source of the worry. Jack was his name. Jack. He weighed less than a shoebox of baseball cards. He weighed so little as to be almost weightless, filled with helium, the worry that a single instance of carelessness in what has been a careless, mistake-riddled life would lead to this being slipping from my grasp, lifting up and out the window, and disappearing into the sky. How do you even hold something so fragile, light, loved?
In the mirror, finally, was a reluctant adult, still clinging, even in his mid-forties, to an identity as a boy: I was wearing a T-shirt of the team I'd loved since childhood, the Boston Red Sox. I deliberately chose to pack the shirt in an overnight bag for the trip to the hospital. I wanted to have it on during the biggest moment of my life. The T-shirt celebrates a victorious season, 2004, the year I believed Calvin Schiraldi and everything was finally redeemed: World Champions!
But the face above this T-shirt and above the sleeping baby was not of one redeemed or of a champion of any kind or even of one who vied for a championship and lost. It was the face of a benchwarmer, and not just of any benchwarmer but of the all-time single-season record holder for benchwarming. This distinction isn't supported in the usual manner of sports records—by numerical data—but instead by the extent to which the record holder was able to extend himself into some ineffable qualitative remove from meaningful action. He was the last player off the bench on a pale, diminutive northern Vermont college team that started a melancholy six-foot-four Grateful Dead fan at center and lost unceasingly.
- On Sale
- May 5, 2015
- Page Count
- 320 pages