My wife is growing tomatoes in our backyard, and they are doing quite well. We look forward to their bearing fruit. I grow things, too. And what I grow, sometimes in secret, and sometimes where others can see, is this illusion that I can write. Yes, I’m teetering on the precipice of 60 – but still like to think that maybe I have picked up along the way some ability to string words together.
So, I nurture this illusion and I fertilize it and even prune it now and then. And just about when I have it to the place of blossoming, I read stuff I wished I could have written. My illusions suffer trauma, stems turn brown, leaves fall off, the whole thing kinda droops.
The source of the trauma this time is a sports writer named Joe Posnanski. He’s done this to me before. Posnanski writes for NBC Sports as well as for his own projects. He, like all those to whom I’m drawn, has a passion for storytelling. His fascination is with the people who do the sport, not just with the sport itself. Statistics matter only so far as they help to reveal the person. And he does all this with a light touch and often a clearly discernible grin. (Read the bio I linked above to discover that.)
I was first consciously exposed to Posnanski when he wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays’ improbable 2011 run to the baseball postseason, and the remarkable Game 162. His line in that piece that has stuck with me is this:
I never argue with people who say baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.
He’s not just a baseball guy. He wrote an article about a wacky NFL game last season that I can’t track down. His take is always a bit wry and carefully considered no matter what sport. Still, I find his stories about baseball to be the most engaging.
He’s 2/3 of the way through writing about the top 100 players (in his judgment) to ever play the game, and each article, from Pete Rose to Cal Ripken to Ozzie Smith is laced with compassion and humor and pathos. I read this morning his accounting of #32, the early 20th century pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. A movie was made about Alexander, apparently, one starring Ronald Reagan. And yet
“The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting…. But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding.
I wish I had written that.
And as he tells Alexander’s story, from his glorious control as a pitcher to his descent into alcoholism, we find this account near the end of his life:
He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.
“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.
“Used to be,” he said.
Posnanski talks about what made him great as a ball player, but he also talks about what made him human.
Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to [former wife] Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.
I knew nothing about this man before reading this. Posnanski introduced me and made me care.
We’ll get tomatoes off my wife’s plants, and my carefully nurtured illusions will survive, somehow. Droopy things will come undrooped. But at this point I can do nothing better than to encourage you to at least sample, and enjoy, some Posnanski. [Any of his vignettes on the top 100 baseball players are worth reading. But don’t be fooled by #57a like I was.]