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IN THE COACH'S BOX

A Life of Its Own
By Stephen Lehman

Allow me to present a brief history lesson, insignificant though it may be. I promise it's the last time I'll tell this story. After editing this journal in its various forms and under its multitudinous dominions for almost twenty years, however, perhaps a little wistful reminiscence is excusable. This is, after all, my last issue as editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly. And as Jerry Garcia put it, what a long, strange trip it's been.

 

If ever I've been relieved to get a decade over with, it was the seventies. For me, it had been a tough ten years, filled with some of the worst decisions a person entering adulthood can make. The consequences of those decisions had come home in force by August of 1980, and I reluctantly became convinced I needed to stop trying to run my own ballgame. Stepping down as manager of my life was not a particularly bold or courageous choice given my team was getting clobbered and we were, God willing and the creek don't rise, only in the third inning. I'll spare you the gory details; friends of Bill W. out there will have a clear enough picture, and as for the rest of you, suffice it to say my life was a mess. It was past time to resign the post and turn the reins over to someone—we'll call him HP—who understood the game a whole lot better than I did. So I started letting everything go: my old behaviors, my old thinking, and quite a few of my old friends. One friend who stayed with me through it all, however, was a local actor, a college buddy named Ken LaZebnik.

As fuzzy as that time still is to me, I clearly recall visiting Ken in his walkdown apartment on the West Bank of Minneapolis sometime in the fall of 1980 and having him show me a cute little mockup cut out of notebook paper for a journal of writing on baseball. Now Ken wasn't one of those guys who had trouble doing things. He'd come up with an idea, and then he'd see it through. So when volume one, number one of The Minneapolis Review of Baseball—a slim, twenty-four page (including front and back covers), 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 saddle-stitched booklet—appeared in January of 1981, I was only slightly surprised. It was written mostly by Ken and his family and included a column by a guy with the unlikely but appropriate moniker of Staff Writer, and it tendered an elegantly simple mission statement: (1) to provide a journal of writing on baseball, and (2) to supply a rallying point for fan opinion. It posited four issues annually in keeping with the seasons of baseball: Hot Stove League, Opening Day, All-Star Break, and the World Series: first base, second base, third base, home.

Within a year I was helping Ken put the thing together and doing a little writing in it as well. We printed it at Haymarket Printers, the source of most left-wing pamphlets in the Twin Cities at the time. We chose Haymarket for reasons more utilitarian than ideological, however: They were simply the cheapest printing company we could find, and we had no money. Not a cent. Curiously, they were also the only print shop that would violate union rules to let us come in and collate and staple the issues ourselves in order to save us a few more precious dimes and nickels. I was enlisted in the MRB by Ken, I surmise, for three reasons, all of them practical and sagacious: (1) we were good friends who saw the world pretty much the same way and enjoyed each other's company, (2) we were both from Missouri and rabid Cardinals fans, both liberal arts types who loved literature as much hardball, and both alumni of the first-ever baseball literature course in the nation, an Interim intensive taught by Professors Robert Warde and Harley Henry at Macalester College in 1974, and (3) I had a car that ran, so we could pick up the printed pages at Haymarket, take them to Ken's place to collate, get them back to Haymarket to staple, and run the finished issues around to local bookstores and the bulk mail office. For the record, it was a puke-green 1976 Ford Maverick with a smashed in front left fender and only one working headlight. (Ken owned a yellow Volkswagen Thing which, despite two working headlights, never ever ran.)

The MRB limped happily along for several years, housed at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis because Ken was in the acting company there and both of us were too transient to keep a mailing address for more than a year or two at a time. We worked nights, got up late, played pinball until early afternoon, and then worked on the journal till it was time to go to work again. The journal never lost enough money during that time to make us stop publishing, despite the fact that for the first two years Ken charged less per issue—fifty cents—than his cost of goods. (We were English and theater majors, remember.) Then in 1984 Ken announced he was moving to the Big Apple to pursue the acting bug and the thing was mine to continue on. That's when I first began to suspect that ěthe thingî had a life of its own, a life distinctly independent of its creators. Ken and I had often referred to it as that needy child always tugging at the pant leg, crying for a little more attention, but there was something more to it than that. At times it seemed to publish itself.

The upside to doing the journal was never monetary, but it was always substantial. Editing a baseball quarterly introduced me to a far-flung league of wonderful, eccentric, passionate baseball kranks from all walks of life and from every corner of the nation. One of them was baseball artist Andy Nelson who joined the staff as illustrator extraordinaire and design guru, guiding the MRB through the rocky transition from mechanical pasteups to computer desktop layouts. At ten years old, a textbook publisher bought the MRB, changed the name to Elysian Fields Quarterly and the format to 6 x 9 perfect bound, and briefly published trade baseball books under the imprint Elysian Fields Press. Little did I know then that 1990 was the approximate beginning of a phenomenal conglomeration of the publishing world that would see media companies merge or get bought up at a dizzying pace. According to Robert McChesney in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, today there are only about twenty-five such companies worldwide putting out just about every piece of information you ever see or hear, from magazines to books to newspapers to TV and radio stations. (The frantic drive to subsume the World Wide Web into this massive corporate megalosaurus is well underway.) It was into the maw of this proto-media merger monstrosity that the tiny little MRB was thrown. In less than two years, however, the beast, hungry for ever-greater profits, spit the unappetizing little journal back out. After that, EFQ went through an on-again off-again private ownership configuration that was probably ill-conceived from the start. To be honest, after two years more of publishing and almost three of languishing in debt, I thought the little journal that could finally couldn't. I was ready to call in the priest and break out a shovel. It seemed it was time to pull the plug.

Enter Tom Goldstein. I'd known Tom for years—he owned a sports memorabilia store and we'd worked together on a Hot Stove League baseball banquet that was started as a fund raiser for the journal but soon took on a life of its own as well. In 1997, Tom bought EFQ for debt and began what can only be called a Lazarus-like story of reclamation. Very soon the journal was not only back from the dead but re-energized in a way it hadn't been since the early days. Tom regularized the publishing schedule, introduced real customer service, set up a Web page, and began doing honest-to-gosh marketing. The quality and presentation of the writing hit an all-time high. You hold in your hands the results of his phenomenal labors, and I must say I'm proud as hell of this little journal that not only would not die, but somehow kept getting better and better with each passing year. Thanks, Tom.

But the truth is, it's time for me to go. It's time for me to get a life of my own. I've got different projects to work on, projects concerning matters other than pennant races and green diamonds and white spheroids with red stitches. In a mere four years, my first born will go off to find what's his to do in the world; two years after that, my second child will do the same. The fact is, I don't want to miss a minute of my time with them between now and then. So just as Ken gave the journal to me sixteen years ago, I now formally pass it along to Tom's capable hands. (I say formally, because Tom's really been doing the lion's share of the work for two years already.) So in addition to his numerous publishing duties, Tom will take over the editing chores as well. I'll stay on the masthead as fiction editor, and we'll be adding a new poetry editor—Richard Solly, an award-winning poet and essayist (Journey-notes, Call to Purpose) to handle the baseball verse. New blood, new ideas. Knothole Press, the book publishing arm of this growing little baseball media empire, is up and running with a reissue of Philip Bess's City Baseball Magic and Ken LaZebnik's one-man play Calvinisms about the late Calvin Griffith, a baseball iconoclast of the highest order. A couple of delightful children's baseball books are forthcoming from Knothole, as well, to help new parents pass along their love of the game to the next generation. Look for them in months to come.

Speaking of Bess's classic treatise on the New Urban Ballpark, keep an eye on the Twin Cities for developments on returning ballpark design to both fiscal and aesthetic sanity. Though it's far from a done deal, the possibility of a new ballpark design that honors the game, its fans, and the surrounding community has never been greater than it is right now in Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Phil has been consulting with private businesses and public officials about holding a charette—an intense inquiry conducted by all concerned parties and appropriate experts into the feasibility of creating a privately-funded, relatively inexpensive (less than $200 million), fan-friendly intimate urban ballpark that can adequately meet small-market team revenue needs to at least survive in the current state of monopolistic economic structures. Whether or not it's possible to do this only honest and intelligent scrutiny can determine, but honesty and intelligence are qualities that have been in desperately short supply in Major League Baseball for nearly forty years, and that's what a charette is all about. If this charette is actually held, who knows what might happen next? Call me optimistic or even hopelessly naive, but maybe, just maybe we'll find we actually like open, thoughtful, veracious philosophical dialogue and even prefer it to the big-money, power-broker, control-over bullying that constitutes business-as-usual in most boardrooms in most cities throughout this great and glorious land of ours. And who knows what that might lead to? Perhaps democracy or something like it might even break out and infect the people anew. Perhaps we might even get a beautiful, fan-friendly place to watch the Twins that isn't the fruit of corporate extortion and political cowardice.

Impossible, you say? Well consider this: How remarkable is it that the big cigars are even considering such a thing? Pretty damn remarkable. And it's only happening because the people of Saint Paul voted down the privilege of financing a $350-400 million mallpark for one of the state's wealthiest men to let his millionaire employees cavort in. And it's only happening because public opinion in Minnesota has run so consistently against the hellish marriage of civic blackmail and corporate welfare to which city after city has succumbed in recent years that our legislature wouldn't touch the issue of public money for a stadium. And it's only happening because ten years ago, an eccentric, iconoclastic, passionate little journal of writing on baseball took a flyer on publishing Phil Bess's radical ideas about how a ballpark can be designed and built to actually harmonize with a vital residential urban community rather than devastate it, how such a park might be a pleasing and friendly place for all fans in attendance to watch a ball game in, and how this could be done with a little creativity and a lot of respect for both the health and well-being of cities and the rich traditions of the game of baseball.

And now, because that journal had a life of its own and wouldn't fold up its tent and steal away, the time may finally be ripe for Phil's ideas to be heard by the people with the power and the money to realize them in brick and steel and concrete and dirt and grass. It's far from a reality, but at least now there's hope. And that's one of the big reasons why one bothers to publish and edit a journal like this one: to speak the truth as best one understands it; to try to shed new light and, when necessary, a little heat as well; and to thereby generate hope. That's what we've tried to do, among other things; that's the tradition Tom takes forward.

May EFQ be doing it still twenty years from now. –EFQ

 

STEPHEN LEHMAN is a baseball fan.

This column first appeared in EFQ 17:3, Summer 2000

© 2000 Stephen Lehman

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