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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Almost Perfect
By Tom Goldstein

 

This happened thirty years ago: I was playing center field for my college intramural team, and the batter smacked a high flyball my way. I'm a pretty good athlete, and I'd deliberately pushed to be center fielder of our team because I thought it was the cool place to be, the guy who got to call off the other fielders, a sort of captain of the outfield. Anyhow, I let my status as center field hotshot go to my head, because when I didn't break right away for the ball, then realized it was going over my head, I made like Willie Mays and decided I'd catch it with my back to the plate. As you might guess, that's an almost impossible play to make, and I didn't make it. The ball bounced away and by the time I retrieved it, the batter had come all the way around to score, a three-run homer. Nobody made a big deal of it, but I was embarrassed as hell, because I'd always prided myself on being an intelligent ballplayer, even if my talent wasn't going to take me very far. So I made a mental note to myself: Don't do anything stupid in the outfield.

Several games later, our team was playing the "buddies," guys from an all-male dorm floor who had probably been decent athletes in high school and carried on the way jocks do—as if they were still in high school. One of them, though, was pretty cool, a quiet guy who'd been an excellent football player but had to give up the sport in college because of knee problems. We'd gotten to know each other a little bit that year, developed a friendly rivalry, and naturally wanted to beat the other on the ball field. He was a big guy with a lot of power in his swing, so when he came up to bat, the outfielders backed up.

Sometime around the fifth inning or so, with the score about even, he stepped up to the plate, and I became very focused. On the second offering from the pitcher, he jacked the ball toward straightaway center, maybe just a little to my left. As soon as the ball left his bat, I thought, Oh shit, this baby's gone. I also thought, I better catch the ball, or I'll never hear the end of it. I'm not the speediest guy in the world, but I took off in a dead sprint away from the plate, tracking the ball in the sky. And during those brief moments when your heart is pumping madly, your body is racing toward that spot where your brain has triangulated that the ball will land, I said to myself, Look over your shoulder, like a football player.

Every once in a while in life, whether it's athletics, a quiet moment at the lake, dancing with your honey, watching kids splash around a sprinkler—whatever—the world just slows down, and there is a feeling of incredible clarity all around you. This was one of those times. It was just me and the ball, and the ball was clearly winning. There was no way I was going to haul in this moonshot. But there is always a hypothetical chance that any given outfielder on any given day can catch up with a flyball if it stays in the air long enough, and that was my only hope. At some point, the potential intersection between ball and glove is going to happen or not, and at that split second, running at full speed, I extended my left arm as far as I could—and the ball rocketed into the webbing of my glove.

There was dead silence, because nobody, including me, thought I would catch up to it. Then my teammates broke out into wild cheering. I was so far out in center field (really, a corn field that had been mowed under years before to create ball fields at the college) that I had to run about fifty feet back toward the infield just to have a chance to hit the cutoff man—and in college, I still had an okay throwing arm. And that's when it hit me: I really wasn't supposed to catch the ball. I thought of Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds, and how every once in a while we ordinary humans might get to do something so exceptional that it gives us a brief sniff at what perfection must feel like. It was just a softball game between a bunch of college kids, but that exhilarating moment has stayed with me all these years.

As editor of EFQ, I've never viewed this column as a place to extol the virtues of the journal or give a preview of what's in a particular issue, because that's always struck me as a bit pretentious. I figured that our readers are smart enough to make their own judgments about the quality of the writing or the import of what is said, and that trying to shape how people might respond to a particular article, poem, or story smacked of self-promotion, something I'm not very good at nor comfortable doing. But this time I'm going to make an exception, because EFQ is probably the one endeavor I've been involved with during my adult life where I come away feeling like I've been a part of something truly special.

Take the current issue, for example. Jack Bushnell's essay, "Of Gardens and Diamonds," is easily one of the finest pieces we've published, a beautiful monologue about the connection between baseball and our everyday lives, how the soil that brings us food and nourishment also brings to life the game on the diamond, whether it's an expertly manicured field in a professional ballpark, an open pasture, or a vacant lot that some city kids put loving care into maintaining. And Greg Williams's "Rounding the Bases," a wonderful fictional piece about childhood friends playing baseball, following the excitement of Don Drysdale's exciting 1968 shutout streak, experiencing tragedy, dancing around the early moments of falling in love—no one will read this story without remembering the excitement and joy of playing a kid's game when all things seemed possible.

The truth is, putting an issue of EFQ together is like choreographing a Broadway show: there's so much talent on display, so many interesting things to consider, that it's a real challenge to meld all the pieces into a production that feels like a worthy performance. But every time I glance through a back issue of EFQ, especially after reading a bit of poetry or an exceptionally poignant essay, I think to myself, "Wow, this is really great stuff!" My only regret is that so few people get to enjoy it.

John Poff's essay on the Donnie Moore tragedy, which appeared in vol. 14, no. 1, of the journal, is arguably the best thing ever published on the impact of racism in baseball, and what it says about racism in general is equally brilliant. Unfortunately, I suspect that nobody prominent in the baseball world ever read it, which I think is a loss for us all. John, a former big leaguer and terrific writer, is back in this issue with a short-but-sweet essay that examines the presence of amphetamines in baseball without condemning nor condoning their use. It's a recognition that people aren't perfect, and that lessons of value, even humor, can be found in a story about drugs, something that if our national leaders took to heart, might help end the failed "War on Drugs" and humanize what's happening in America's prisons.

The current issue of EFQ also features the voices of five women writers, the first time in my eleven years as publisher that we've reached that mark. It may not seem like a significant number, but given the percentage of submissions we get from women, I'm proud that their work is finding its way into our pages on a regular basis, whether it's writing and musing about the game, or essays and photos reporting on women at play—such as Team USA's victory in the Women's World Cup (vol. 23, no. 4) and "Women's Baseball in Australia" (vol. 24, no. 3). EFQ, to my knowledge, is the first baseball publication ever to devote an entire issue to women in baseball (vol. 12, no. 2), and it pleases me that in addition to our five female contributors, both works of fiction in this issue have a focus on women, including Eric Braun's "Fantasy Girl," a funny, well-crafted tale of culture clash, unexpected romance, and a woman finding her way in a domain usually dominated by men.

Why does any of this matter? The mainstream press and the corporate publishers of hundreds of baseball books every year generally treat baseball as a romantic, nostalgic game that anybody can write about and thus not something that should be taken too seriously—except when asking the public to spend billions on pro stadiums, whether it's $600 million in Washington, D.C., or $1.3 billion to build a new palace for the Yankees (while the most iconic place in baseball history is reduced to rubble). Only then does baseball become the "fabric of the community," something so vital to our everyday lives that we couldn't possibly get by without a $20 million a year outfielder on the local club.

At EFQ, however, we've always been the real deal, a magazine that's tried to capture how baseball truly is integral to our lives, not merely a microcosm of the larger world, and that there's a quality to the game that isn't always easily quantifiable. We've also exploded the notion that the best baseball writing only exists in the New York Times or the New Yorker, and proved that talented writers who love baseball can be found throughout the land—and overseas as well. Sometimes when I'm reading a particularly moving manuscript for the first time, I'm overwhelmed by the sense of grace and beauty that one of our contributors has the ability to convey.

Unfortunately, EFQ isn't perfect. In every issue there's a sentence that could have been better, a typo we missed, an essay that probably could have been tweaked a little bit more. Issues never come out on time, our Dave Moore Award winner is always announced too late, and we've never been able to pay our writers, let alone our editor. And it saddens me that after so many years there is little recognition of what we've accomplished, no literary awards to hold up, and about the same paltry number of subscribers we had five years ago.

No, nothing is perfect in this world. I'll never make another great running catch on the diamond, and EFQ will probably never garner the praise or success it deserves. But for one short interval in time, we came pretty close to perfection. And that has to mean something.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN has been publisher of EFQ since 1998 and its editor since the Fall 2000 issue. In February, twenty years after graduating law school, he finally took—and passedóthe Minnesota bar exam, and in May was sworn in to practice as an attorney. His mom is very proud.

© 2008 Tom Goldstein

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