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The Death of a Baseball Fan
By Ken LaZebnik
A note from the Portsider, Staff Writer:
My pal Ken LaZebnik lost a friend in May. He asked me if I could loan him my column to tell you about it. I said sure, someday youre going to be writing my obituaryyou and the tax man are two people I want to keep happy. So here it is:
Richard Bunkall loved old things. He painted the Chrysler Building and steam engines and immense city plazas with Romanesque arches mysteriously enclosing the Titanic. He painted with depth and clarity and melancholy, so it seemed natural that he was a baseball fan.
"If I have to be dying of something, at least it was named after a
baseball player," he said. Richard had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,
or ALS: Lou Gehrigs Disease, the only time I know that one can be
diagnosed with certainty as a ballplayer. I met Richard when the disease
was pretty far along. Hed set up his studio in his garage and there
he painted large canvases by jamming a brush between the fingers of his
painting hand and then supporting that throwing hand, as it were, with his
glove hand. He wore a respirator, a plastic contraption over his nose that
was braced behind his head with elastic straps like a catchers mask.
He worked to the steady pump-organ wheeze of the respirator, which filled
his failing lungs with a falling gasp.
He kept painting like this, with increasing effort, expending more and
more energy to simply move the brush across the canvas, until two weeks
before his death. He painted because he had to: he possessed the artists
need which exists independently of cause and effect, but he also had to
provide for his wife and three children after the death he knew was coming.
He finished a show of eleven paintingswe all thought it was his lastand
then lived a year longer and painted four more big canvases.
On a shelf in his studio was a wooden rack about two feet square. It held
old and beautifully scuffed baseballs: a sculpture, I assumed. Each grass
stained ball implied a story; arrayed together it looked like an abacus
of America. Only it wasnt a sculpture. Richard found these balls walking
his dog near a Little League park. Hed see a forgotten, lost ball,
pick it up, and add it to the rack because he liked the way old baseballs
look. I thought it was a sculpture because everything Richard did rang with
He liked Moby Dick. He liked Shakespeares plays, Wrigley Field, and
Billie Holidays voice. Americans are always on the lookout for the
new, the next thing, the hot information we should seize upon. Richard cherished
the old news, the lasting information, a few things he knew were beautiful.
He said, "Today I consider myself the luckiest unlucky man on the
face of the earth." He never complained, never wondered why God had
picked him for this disease or this disease for him (and Richard believed
deeply in God). He loved his wife, Sally, also an artist, as fully as any
man ever has loved. He loved his three boystwins of seven and a five-year-oldas
deeply as any father ever has. He loved baseball because it is an old thing,
a game addicted to old habits like the hit and run and old knowledge like
"Never make the first or last out at third base."
They tried building new ballparks in the sixties and those failed. What
succeeded in the nineties was building new old parks, an irony which delighted
Richard. His paintings were like Fenway: solemn, full of echoes, melancholy,
and deep with history.
Richard usually painted big canvases, eighty inches wide, sixty inches tall. The last thing he painted was a tiny portrait of his sons baseball glove.
I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the course,
I have kept the faith:
2 Timothy 4:7
KEN LaZEBNIK is the founder of Elysian Fields Quarterly. He lives
in Studio City, California, with his wife and two sons and writes for television.
© 1999 Ken LaZebnik
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