By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
IT'S 107 DEGREES AND I'M STANDING ON THE DYING grass of a San Fernando Valley baseball field. The uniform I'm wearing isn't helping the situation. It's made of some nonorganic semistretchy material that seems to both absorb and seal in the summer heat, turning me into a smoldering, fly-ball-fearing, human Jiffy Pop with a baseball hat on my head.
I look over at the dugout and see my dog, Wally, trying to dig her way out of the heat. Little Italian Alex sees me and smiles, shrugs, as my pooch kicks up a steady barrage of dirt in her quest for subterranean cool. Not a bad move, I think. If I had a shovel out here I might do the same. But of course the minute I finished, some bastard would likely pound a fly ball into right field. I'd have just enough time to stumble out into the sunlight, raise my glove skyward and watch with horror as the ball plopped to the grass beside me.
That, of course, is the curse of the outfielder: long stretches that lull you into believing you're a mere spectator, punctuated by sudden events with the potential to eradicate all self-esteem. I begin to pace nervous circles, pounding a fist into my 1974 Davey Lopesmodel glove.
Over at third base, Johnny keeps touching the brim of his hat and shifting from foot to foot. It could be the volatility of third base, where a line drive can suddenly scream toward you at upward of 100 miles an hour. Then again, it could be the gambling habit that keeps Johnny out at various Eastside card palaces till the early a.m. It could also be the love life that makes his tidy one-bedroom seem like a personally funded halfway house for wayward strippers and prostitutes. Either way, he's on edge, and that's a good thing at third base.
I refocus on the infield and see that play has momentarily stopped. Our tattooed, Mean Streets-worshipping catcher, Dino, has pulled off his mask and is marching out to the mound to confer with our freshly immigrated Japanese pitcher, Masashi. I once asked Masashi what pearls of wisdom old Dino gave him in such situations. He grinned and told me, "He said to think of blowjob."
Dino is the ex-drummer of a band called the Hangmen. He borders on having Tourette's syndrome and is prone to sudden eruptions of profanity, mostly directed toward the league's umpires, who he believes have established a far-reaching conspiracy to systematically lower his batting average. He also takes great joy in loudly sharing the sordid details of his latest sexual adventures, which usually involve women's unwashed feet or socks. But Dino's enthusiasm for self-expression is by no means limited to mere verbal outbursts. When it appears he might strike out at bat, the rest of us desperately scramble for cover, knowing if a third strike is called, an aluminum bat will soon be sailing through the air toward the bench. Nothing personal on Dino's part. He just doesn't like letting the team down.
With Dino crouched behind home plate, Masashi leans back and hurls a searing fastball. By the time the batter can swing, the ball is already cooling in Dino's mitt and the inning is over. Masashi heads for the dugout, smiling demurely as the rest of us sing his name. It's all part of his "American" experience. It's all part of mine, too. This is amateur baseball in Los Angeles.
SO HOW DID SOMEONE LIKE ME, AN EX-PUNK-ROCK NARcotic waste disposal turned espresso-drinking closet intellectual in his 30s, end up standing out here in a cheap baseball uniform? And why am I caring with all my heart whether my team can somehow avoid self-destructing and manage to win this one game? Because although we are tied for first place in the league and leading by three runs, lately we have developed this awful tendency to destroy ourselves in a single horrifying inning of jaw-dropping errors, muttered death threats and near-suicidal depression. Perhaps it's just the game of baseball, or maybe it's the fact that the team is made up of ex-junkies, ex-convicts and crazy foreigners. We are an emotional bunch.
This all began with our manager, now pacing the crowded dugout, puffing a cigarette and barking out his latest mantra of hardball enlightenment: "No stupid base running! Be smart out there!" His arm is cradled in a thick plaster cast, and he's looking a bit pale and shaky. It could be the stress of a championship game, but it could also be the cocktail of prescription painkillers he's been knocking back lately. His name is Mike Coulter, and he's the founder of this team called the Griffith Park Pirates.
Back in the late '80s, Mike moved out from Baltimore with an engineering degree and dreams of becoming a rock star. Not surprisingly, he ended up in a one-room Echo Park roach palace, shooting heroin and listening to Nick Cave records.
Mike finally managed to clean up and put together a band. He called his little power trio Lifter and started playing the clubs around Silver Lake. They had a minor college-radio hit and were snatched up by Interscope records. The future looked bright. Lifter's debut was an obsessive sonic diary of Mike's broken heart at the hands of a girl named Melinda. He titled the album, well, Melinda. When it failed to generate the massive sales Interscope desired, the company, not unlike Melinda, stopped returning his calls.