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BASEBALL CONFIDENTIAL

Amphetamine Story
By John Poff

While some of the dialogue has been reconstructed to complete the narrative, and names and other identifying (and perhaps incriminating) details have been changed to protect the guilty, the following tale happened pretty much the way it's written.

What is that feeling when you are twenty-two years old and in love and you are heading off to Mexico to play ball (until two weeks ago you didn't even know they played professional baseball in Mexico) and you are in love with Patti and it is her funky red van you are riding in and, honestly, the road unfolds like a ribbon to–what? Not Oz or Valhalla for me but just the hope of washing up, like Odysseus, on some distant shore, not older or wiser or better but just–alive and different. Maybe nameless.

Who can't see themselves in hopeful, pristine moments–as simple as a first apartment or a new love affair–and who can't see that fundamental yearning for what it really is: the hope of losing oneself totally–the lackluster culture, family conditioning, the teachers and ministers and doctors droning on and on until all unwilling we wear that droning as ourselves.

At any rate, this was what I was thinking and feeling in the fall of '74 when I returned to the old hometown–Findlay, Ohio–to pick up Patti and begin our life of living together by driving down to Mazatlan for the winter. We packed up the van and stopped at a travel agency for maps and information about passports. There was no particular reason for them to be helpful to us–we weren't buying anything–but they were helpful, telling us how to get passports at the border and so forth. They seemed to smile a lot to themselves. They must have been amused by our innocence and stupidity: "Now just exactly where is Mexico, anyhow?" But what did we care? And what did they know about Mexico, anyhow, besides what they learned at some seminar up in Toledo? Hot damn! We were the ones who would be out there doing it while they were sitting on their fat butts at these comical little desks in beautiful downtown Findlay, envisioning a brochure Mexico in the same way they envisioned a brochure Tahiti or Jamaica.

We stepped out of that travel agency and we were in the heart of Findlay (we had both lived there most of our lives), right at the corner newsstand where we had probably bumped into each other, or just missed each other, a hundred times, and with the First National Bank across the street. It was late afternoon. Patti looked strange and vibrant in a suede jacket with fringes in the back and black pants. It seemed like the perfect outfit to wear to Mexico. We had always thought of Findlay as a kind of graveyard–a killing jar for teenage hopes and desires–but today it felt like a launching pad. We stood on that old familiar street corner, in the late afternoon of a late November day, smiling and looking around and waiting for . . . what? Maybe we hoped old man Herrick, who sold us our first bikes before being run out of business for exposing himself in the back of the shop, would stroll by and wave good-bye to us. Or maybe we hoped our dead mothers would reappear to give us a proper sendoff. Or maybe the moment was enough just as it was.

Where is Mexico? We found it hard to find. We headed south and then west and then south again until I thought of my old friend Guy who lived somewhere close to New Orleans. We went three hundred miles out of our way to see him, with no advance notice. (Actually, six hundred miles out of the way. I had planned to take the southern route to Mazatlan until the van broke down in Del Rio, at the border, where we learned in casual conversation there is no southern route to Mazatlan. So it was up to El Paso and then over.) We called Guy when we got to town–found his number in the phone book–and miraculously he answered. Grab your girl, Guy, and let's go get drunk.

Honky-tonking it outside New Orleans: a near fight over a pool game. Guy put his glasses down on the edge of the table and looked up at the other guy with a gaze that was instantly and clearly connected to his longtime heritage of good ol' boy insanity and violence: "Now I am telling you, boy, that this is our quarter and it is our turn to shoot pool at this table." The other guy backed down and the evening moved forward.

Lynn, his girlfriend, has short hair, large hips, and is friendly in that way you can almost instantly recognize: she has been lonely all her life. She is the girl sitting by herself in the school cafeteria, writing in her notebook, and not about who she likes or a homework assignment. I had never had the patience or the charm to learn just what she was writing about and now, like Keats with poetry, I am surprised and delighted my friend has hooked up with her.

At one point she is playing pinball and we walk up behind her and Guy scopes her hips, framing them like a picture, and his entire body moves in a rhythmic spasm like a good-natured snake, and I am remembering the way he used to rhapsodize about women with large butts, and this moment connects with every other moment in my life when I've heard men express their feelings about some aspect of a woman's shape. But this is the bedrock–my good friend in love with a lonely woman's hips and expressing it here in this Delta honky-tonk.

Southern chivalry is not dead. Guy insisted on paying for our motel room that night. Somehow we wound up on the east side of the river. I had crossed the Mississippi once or twice before, but that next morning I felt it for the first time: the lumbar vertebrae of America's great water-spine–fluid and oppressive. . . .

 

Three years later, in late August, I was back in New Orleans, finishing out my first season at the Triple A level in the minor leagues. Three years can be a lifetime for a ballplayer. I had been a suspect and then a prospect and then a suspect again and now, with a good season with the Oklahoma City 89ers under my belt, was once more a reasonably legitimate prospect with a reasonably legitimate shot at making the big leagues before too long.

We sort of skidded into New Orleans for the final three-game series of the season, with no game scheduled for our first night in town. There are very few scheduled off-days in a Triple A season, maybe four or five in the five months of playing games. In the lower minor leagues, there is only one off-day in the entire 144-game season. That is the day of the major league All Star Game, as if all the minor leaguers, on their one off-night of a long season, will try to pick up some pointers from the big leaguers on TV instead of going out and getting drunk and trying to get laid.

So you can see that the combination of being near the end of the season and having an off-night and being in New Orleans tended to create a fairly festive atmosphere among the 89ers. We weren't in downtown New Orleans, but there were plenty of bars where we were and they stayed open a hell of a lot longer than the bars in Des Moines or Springfield or most of the other cities in the American Association.

Several of us wound up at Rudy's, a place with a circular bar and raised dance floor. I found myself in the middle of the kind of drinking party that more than satisfied my humble standards: plenty of time, friendly teammates, and cold beer. To my left were Gary "the Bear" Wilhelm and Rob Crandall. They were both southern boys (in the mid-seventies that still meant something) but I never held that against them, especially when we drank beer together. The Bear had been a pitcher at North Carolina State a year or two before I played at Duke. He was from Silver City and mainly wanted to make enough money in baseball to be able to go back home and raise hogs. Patti and I had spent the last couple of winters in New Mexico, where we had been overpowered by the sunsets and the beauty of the landscape, and mainly wanted to make enough money in baseball to be able to go back to New Mexico and buy some land where we could smoke dope and look at the sky.

It was a connection of sorts and made for a pretty good conversation, although the three of us tended to wind up on different tracks. I might start up with something about finding a nice piece of land, maybe continuing a conversation that had begun two or three weeks earlier in some late night motel room. The Bear could get behind that idea, but Crandall had hunting dogs and it is my experience that if you drink with someone who has hunting dogs and mention the word "country," sooner or later you are going to be talking hunting stories. This was all right with the Bear–it was part of the life–but the closest I ever came to a hunting experience was the time I was eleven years old and shot a rifle on the target range at Camp Nelson Dodd. When my target sheet came back, I was a cool 0-10. I don't mean for the bull's-eye or even the circles, but for the whole piece of paper. I had hit .567 that summer in Little League. My interests stayed with baseball, and I stayed on the fringes of hunting stories.

It's not easy to write ballplayer dialogue. You run the risk of sounding like a modern-day James Fenimore Cooper. It's not Elmore Leonard dialogue, which is terrific, I believe, and realistic because it combines two ideas in one sentence and leaves words out just like real people do ("The fuck you wanna do is shoot the little fucker."). For a ballplayer, the pregame preparation and the game and the postgame stuff, even if it involves drinking a lot of beer, are all connected, and this feeling of connectedness influences your conversation, probably for the worse. The thrill of great dialogue for me is the way it captures and identifies, even isolates, the newly created reality in each moment.

Baseball is different. How you do in a game is connected to what you did before the game, and each game is connected to the last, going all the way back to the first time you stepped on a ball field. I coach my kid's Little League team and I tried to explain this to them once, because they are absolutely clueless. "You know, it's not like a groundball is just hit to you and either you catch it or you don't. You start catching that groundball about two in the afternoon, the way you're thinking and getting ready for the game. You start getting your base hits the night before, and if any of you ever make it to the big leagues, it's probably gonna be because your grandfathers started making the right preparations." They look at me like I'm crazy.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2000 issue.

JOHN POFF lives somewhere in the upper Midwest (not Minnesota!) where he is a farmer, acupuncturist, schoolteacher, and professional race car driver. He played professional baseball for eight years, including brief appearances in the majors with the Phillies and Brewers.

© 2000 John Poff

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