|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.
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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.
Mike took it all surprisingly well. He had tried, and that was all that mattered. Back at his old day job, he began to daydream about baseball and the idea of playing again. Like many a rebellious youth, he had been forced out of the game by a narrow-minded coach back in his hometown. "I was at a Catholic high school and my hair was a little too long," he says.
Three summers ago, I'm standing in an alley playing catch with Mike when he starts ranting about how he's gonna start a team. Says he found a league sponsored by the city. Not some typical sissified softball league for out-of-shape beer guzzlers fielding balls with a chicken wing in one hand. No, sir, this here is the real deal. Baseball. Hardball. At which point I'm thinking two things: Mike might well be loaded and talking out of his ass, but if he's not, how the hell am I going to back out of this without looking like a complete coward?
See, I hadn't played any serious baseball since the tender age of 11. That was the year an older kid who looked amazingly like a â young non-albino Johnny Winter sauntered across an empty schoolyard and sold me my first joint. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't get stoned on cat shit and sunflower seeds. And don't let anybody tell you the evil weed doesn't lead to harder drugs.
Sports weren't really an option after that. Next thing I know I'm 15 years old, wearing a black thrift-store suit and playing minimalist guitar in a gothic punk band called Christian Death. My friend Roger is up front singing in a full wedding gown, and the stage is littered with flowers stolen from the local graveyard. Everyone in my pubescent crowd is staggering around in a narcotic-induced haze, imagining themselves some hybrid of William Burroughs and Jean Genet miraculously transplanted from decadent prewar Berlin into the saccharine suburbs of Southern California. Then, for me, it's a downward spiral of hard drugs, a failed art-school attempt, two years playing drums for the punk band Bad Religion, several slumber parties in the county jail, and finally a state-sponsored 18-month stay in a hardcore treatment center.
After 12 years of rebuilding my life, joining Mike Coulter's baseball team makes perfect sense to me. Not so for some of the others in our crowd. When faced with the commitment of actually joining a team, with matching uniforms and schedules, a lot of the guys we know simply vanish. Though they all claim to possess near-legendary baseball skills, when push comes to shove they somehow can't pull the trigger. This is not surprising. The area where most of us live, Silver Lake, is the virtual epicenter of hipster irony. Sincerity is at best ignored and at worst ridiculed. This is a neighborhood that once boasted a well-organized adult kickball game, where Scooby-Doo lunch pails are collected like rare coins. If Mike and I had casually announced we were going to permanently sear the image of, say, Shaun Cassidy into our buns, nobody would have batted an eye. This was different, though. In this endeavor we risked committing the worst of all possible social sins: caring and looking stupid.
WHEN I HEAR THAT MY FRIEND CLAY PLAYED SOME high school ball down in Orange County, I begin a persistent recruiting process on par with some fat-cat big-college alum. Three days later we finalize the deal over a cup of con leche at the Tropical café and a promise to help the employment-challenged Clay with his league fees.
At first glance, Clay seems an unlikely prospect: late 30s, tanned arms covered with faded tattoos, face weathered by a hard life and too much California sunshine. Back in the late '80s, he hooked up with a noisy hard-rock band called Junkyard and signed a big deal with Geffen. At the time, he had amassed a few drug-related legal problems. After formalizing the deal, Clay went to score some celebratory smack, got arrested and found himself in county jail on a no-bail felony warrant. Geffen obviously saw dollar signs in Junkyard, so it hired a big-shot lawyer, but the best even he could do was get Clay a year. Languishing in his cell, Clay wondered if the band would wait for him. Much to everyone's surprise, they did.
Eight months later our boy hits the street and everything's looking sweet. The album gets great reviews and the video's all over MTV. Clay's living the rock & roll dream. Trouble is, his drug habit is completely out of whack, even for a boozy rock band like Junkyard. Soon he's out of the band, back on the streets and back in jail.
He gets out after another year, tries to clean up and fails miserably. Finds himself living in a broken-down Continental on Ninth and Pico with some sweaty Polish guy and a growling rottweiler. From there it's an ugly roller-coaster ride of detoxes, jail cells, shit jobs and blown chances. He finally manages to get off dope, and in 1998 we recruit him to our fledgling baseball team. He ends up fielding line drives at the hot corner, third base.
The team's next signing is a lumbering long-ball hitter named Chris. With the tanned, muscular good looks of an '80s porn star, he's yet another formerly promising high school athlete who saw his future obliterated by a combo of nihilistic punk rock and nasty street drugs. Years later Mike Coulter finds him cleaned up and working a local sound stage, where his addiction has metamorphosed into an all-encompassing need to romance anything with no fur and a heartbeat.
AS THE FIRST SEASON APPROACHES, WE'RE STILL short a few players. Turns out that the league has a waiting list, and that there are two names on it. We call them both. Whoever they are, they want to play baseball and that's good enough. We sign them up sight unseen, pay our league fees and are officially a team, the Griffith Park Pirates. We all drive down to East L.A. to purchase our nonorganic, heat-confining uniforms.
Our ace pitcher, Masashi, is one of the names from the list. He's just arrived from Japan with a hunger to play hardball. I figure when he learns enough English to fully comprehend who he's playing with, he'll bow graciously and run screaming for the hills. Until then we'll enjoy his company and his fastball. This particular theory is shot to hell when Masashi arrives for practice in a lime-green cardigan. He walks to the mound and everyone starts clapping. Emblazoned across his back is the huge skull emblem of the New York punk band the Misfits. Needless to say, we all appreciate his daring juxtaposition of classic prep and old-school hardcore. A few weeks later someone spots him diving off the stage at a Rancid concert.
When I sit with Masashi at his favorite noodle shop in Little Tokyo, he tells me how he was following the accepted Japanese career path when he suddenly had a life-changing realization. He saw his future and it looked, well, boring. "My major was civil engineering. But after a half-month in school, I wanted to quit. So boring. And I talked with my grandmother and mother, but they were so freaked out. I said I want to quit university and I want to study acting." He then upped the ante by telling his family that he was headed for Hollywood. Whereupon he packed his bags and just took off. His old friends looked on in stunned politeness. "I was on a path. I jumped off. But my friends couldn't do that."
Masashi landed in L.A. and, like any right-thinking transplant, headed straight for smoggy West Covina. There, surrounded by mini-malls and sun-cracked stucco, he began studying English at some school for oblivious foreigners. After a while, he saw the light and moved into L.A. proper, where he started to study acting. It's at this point that he heads down to the Parks and Recreation office, puts his name on the baseball list and joins the team.
Soon he's soaking up motivational speeches from Dino. "That's what I was hoping, to get involved with Americans and get to know an unknown world for me. When I'm in the dugout, I'm very proud of our team. I just look at everyone and it is very cool. I am so glad to be in there."
The other player on the waiting list is yet another aspiring thespian from a far-off exotic land. His name is Jacob and he comes to us from Appalachian West Virginia. He played junior high baseball back in them there hills until, as with Mike Coulter, the coach objected to his long hair. Jacob did have a few behavioral problems as well. Youthful indiscretions like drinking and joyriding helped land him a short stay in reform school.
Re-enrolled in high school, Jacob fell hard for a teen temptress. So smitten, in fact, that he followed her into the theater department. He ended up in a play that made it all the way to a state drama competition, where he won the award for best supporting actor. No more joyriding for Jacob -- now he wanted to act. After high school he headed west to Oregon, where he pounded the boards of community theater, paying the rent with a series of mind-numbing factory jobs. Several years later, he splits for the bright lights of Hollywood.
"This city is amazing. You can do anything you want here. I mean, any dream," Jacob says. "And baseball is just like a dream." Like Masashi, he finds his way to the parks office and puts his name on the waiting list. A few months later, he gets a call from the Griffith Park Pirates. From day one, Jacob refuses to wash his hat, invoking some backwoods, Burt Reynoldsinspired good-luck ritual. We put him, and his stinky hat, at second base.
THAT FIRST SEASON WE TAKE A BEATING. THE other teams have been playing longer and are much younger. Most, if any, haven't spent the last 10 years living out some tribute to a '70s-era Lou Reed. We have our moments, but we lose a lot of games. We are, however, surprised to find out just how much winning matters.
The other thing that surprises me is how much fun we're having. We all show up an hour before game time to warm up and toss the ball around. We actually talk â strategy -- in the car, on the street, in massage parlors. On holidays we duck out of family get-togethers to meet and practice. It's stunning to see my world-weary comrades playing with such joy. When we actually do win a game, the buzz lasts for days. We decide to sign up and play the winter season.
AS THE SECOND SUMMER APPROACHes, the team gets a few new players. Will is a first-generation Cuban immigrant, Mike L. a first-generation Basque immigrant. They grew up together as teen punks in Downey, heckling Richard Carpenter -- of the Carpenters -- as he angrily mowed his parents' lawn.
"It was really fun to be punks in Downey back then." Will smiles fondly. "Cops literally hated us, and would chase us down. And men would fight us. You know, we're 13-, 14-year-olds, and like 30-year-old mulletheads with mustaches would pull their Camaros over and fight us. And we would have big gang wars with the 'Hessians,' the metalheads. We would meet behind Bobo's Arcade and have gang fights." Will and Mike now have lots of tattoos and live in Los Angeles. On weekends they play together in a traditionalist three-chord punk band called the Dimwits.
The other new guy is a bit more unconventional. He's about 5 feet tall and rail thin, and dresses entirely in black, resembling a classier, extremely debonair Eddie Munster. When he introduces himself, I have absolutely no idea what language he's speaking, though for some reason he assumes I can understand every word. Turns out his name is Alex, he's Italian, and he's a real-life count. When I ask him about it, he shrugs. "My mother's a countess and I'm a count. We still have a castle and stuff." He thinks Americans tend to romanticize all that "historical shit." To him a castle is just old and fusty. Other than that he's an average Joe. Well, except for the fact that he's a distant relative of famed boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.
A FEW GAMES INTO THAT SECOND summer, there are some nasty rumors about Clay. They're sadly confirmed when he shows up for a game in long sleeves. The temperature is somewhere near 100 degrees. The following week someone sees him outside his apartment with his belongings spread out on the curb and a hastily scribbled "for sale" sign posted. After that, Clay just disappears. We replace him with a guy named Dave and continue playing ball.
Dave was driving down Sunset Boulevard with a friend when he saw a billboard featuring pasta vacuum and retired Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. It was at that moment that he realized just how much he loved the game of baseball. Raised by a single mom, he had taught himself to play with a broomstick in the alley behind their small home. He played ball in high school, and even when he was at the boys' home in Utah. He played while on the run in Alaska, and now that he was back home in Los Angeles and his life was finally on the upswing, he wanted to play again. His friend told him that he knew of a baseball team that needed a player, a team for guys just like him. He takes over at third base.
Two months later, Dave decides to relax with a little cocaine and heroin. It doesn't go so well. The next morning Mike L. stops by and finds him sitting in a chair, fully conscious and completely blue. One leg is folded behind him at an unnatural angle and his hearing is gone. It seems playing third base for the Pirates has become a real-life version of drumming for Spinal Tap.
"I threw him on my back and I took him down the stairs," Mike L. remembers. "While we're going down you could hear his foot hitting each stair -- thump, thump -- 'cause it was just flopping around. He was taking a lot of deep breaths 'cause his lungs had filled up with fluid."
Mike burns rubber to County General. By the time Dave hits intensive care, his heart has stopped. The doctors manage to jolt it back into action.
"The doctor comes out and was telling me, basically, he won't live, and if he does, they're gonna have to amputate his leg. I went in and he had machines keeping him alive. A machine keeping him breathing, a machine working his kidneys."
Dave lingers in a coma for over a week with kidney failure. When he fades back into semiconsciousness, the doctors haul him into surgery to try to save his dying leg. But they've been giving him blood thinner to help his kidneys work, and when they open him up he begins to bleed to death.
At this point the anesthesia starts to wear off and Dave finds himself able to eavesdrop on the doctors as they discuss his possible departure from the world. "I remember I think I'm on an operating table underneath the field at Dodger Stadium, and what they're saying basically is that if things get any worse they're gonna have to open the doors and I'm gonna have to be lifted up into the light. And I know that if that happens, I'm totally fucked."
Dave survives the surgery and the doctors salvage his leg. They say he'll walk again, but will have a serious limp and need a cane. So much for baseball.
AMIDST ALL THIS, THE TEAM IS ACtually starting to play better. Our obsessive tendencies drive us to spend endless hours at the local batting cages. Every Sunday we wash down handfuls of Tylenol and Motrin, soothing our wrecked bodies long enough to play some pretty decent ball. We're still losing games, but even those are close.
One day as we're warming up, Mike Coulter turns to throw the ball and we hear a cracking noise, like a tree branch snapping. Mike stumbles to the backstop fence and collapses. News from the hospital is shocking. The bone in his throwing arm has exploded into tiny fragments.
It's agonizing to see Mike, who found salvation in playing baseball again, and who started a team that has brought us all so much happiness, now unable to play, perhaps for a lifetime. He decides to stay on as manager, but you can see the heartbreak in his eyes every time he watches the rest of us take the field. I'm now starting to believe in a vengeful God, one bent on punishing us for our past junkie transgressions.
THEN A CRAZY THING HAPPENS. WE START to win more games than we lose. Heading into the final stretch, we find ourselves unexpectedly tied for first place with a team of cocky kids called the Blazers. Unlike us, they attract a large crowd of cheering family and friends. They also like to openly taunt opposing players. Mike Coulter tells me he thinks they take it all for granted -- youth, baseball. Maybe he's right. I just remember the game when they heckled Masashi. â How he seemed kind of perplexed and just kept pitching, too polite to respond.
The championship game is played at our home field in Griffith Park, and there are even a few locals there to cheer us on -- a couple of tattooed girlfriends, Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster and some chain-smoking coffee addicts from the Tropical café. As we prepare to take the field, I look over and see Dave standing on the grassy hill with a cane. He looks fragile, but it's great to see him. He waves hello and keeps his distance.
Standing in the outfield waiting for the first pitch, I find myself watching everything with an unfamiliar intensity. It's one of the few times in my life when I'm actually living each moment as it happens, like I can somehow grab hold of each second and inspect it before it passes me by. It's an unfamiliar sensation for someone who's made a career of checking out.
I gaze across the field at my teammates. Masashi's falling into a rhythm, throwing pitch after pitch to a crouched Dino. Jacob's at shortstop, wearing his dirty hat and staring ahead. Johnny's at third, shifting around and assessing the odds. Mike Coulter's in the dugout, arm in a sling, sharing a smoke with Chris. We look battered and bruised, like teams used to before the personal trainers, dietary supplements and coke-dealer jewelry. And that's exactly what we play like -- a real baseball team.
We play our best game ever that day, completely focused. This time it's not us that unravels with errors but the kids from Eagle Rock. Midway through the game Dave limps awkwardly down the hillside, enters the dugout and sits down with the team. An inning or so later, he notices someone wearing his number, smiles and tells him not to get too comfortable with it.
By the last inning, everyone's smiling and joking around. We know we're about to win, and it feels extraordinary. I suddenly have this image of Clay out there somewhere, alone. It makes me sad, not just for Clay, but for all my friends who didn't make it. Standing in the dugout with my baseball team, I wish they could all be there to feel what I'm feeling, and to know that it was actually worth it to grow up. And I want to make Keith Richards and Lou Reed run wind sprints up and down the field until they fall to their knees and beg for forgiveness.
The team clinches first place that day. A few weeks later, we all get shiny red plastic trophies. I haul mine out to my parents' house and stick it alongside my ancient Little League trophies.
A MONTH LATER, I HEARD THAT CLAY had resurfaced in a long-term recovery house. I went out to visit him and he looked thin and tired, like some old gold prospector found wandering the desert. When I told him the team won first place, he tried to smile. I asked him if he ever thought of us when he was out there on the streets and he nodded. "I used to think about the team all the time, actually. I would remember what my life was like, and it was always such a bright thought for me." He told me he'd stay in treatment for as long as it took, and who was I to argue? I put some money on his books -- the petty-cash account kept for him in the program office -- hugged him and wished him luck. The next season Clay showed up on a pass from rehab and managed to squeeze in a few innings. Now he's working there and back on the team.
Dave started coming to the games in his old uniform, sitting in the dugout and keeping score. He eventually went in for a few innings at his old position. He still can't run, but when he does get a hit, the rules allow one of us to go in and run the bases for him. This isn't the big leagues.
Mike Coulter went back to Baltimore for surgery on his arm. After it healed the first time, the doctors told him it would be fine for "average" use. That didn't include throwing a baseball, so he had it rebroken and a steel plate inserted to make it stronger. He assures us he'll be back in the lineup a year from now, and if that's the case, we'll make a place for him. The team has kind of adopted the same rule as the mob: Once you're on the team you're never really off, no matter how far you stray, or how far life strays from you.
THESE DAYS, WHENEVER I'M FLYING in a plane, I look down and see the baseball diamonds. They look like nothing else, a brown square inside a larger green square, and they're everywhere. I imagine what it must be like to live in that particular town, to work there and feel like it's your home. And I think of how friends down there play baseball together on that very field.
I'm sure a lot of people think that grown men playing on an amateur baseball team, not to mention broken-down men fending off their personal demons, is slightly pathetic. But playing isn't about trying to recapture the past, not at all. It's about embracing the present. I've spent far too many hours regretting things I've done or fearing what lies ahead, and I don't think I'm so alone in this. But when I'm out there with my friends, playing ball, that all kind of disappears, and I find myself living every moment completely.
Last winter the Griffith Park Pirates played a night game. It was cold and windy and we were getting the shit kicked out of us by a bunch of old-school mustachioed jocks. In the last two innings we started to mount a serious comeback. By the final inning we were down by only one run with Little Alex (the count) on base. With one strike left in the game, and all hope nearly extinguished, Masashi pounded a ball into deep center field.
As Alex came across to score the tying run, the entire team piled out of the dugout and started screaming encouragement to Masashi, who was still tearing around the bases. Out in the field, some sheriff type turned and rocketed the ball toward home. As Masashi touched third, the ball was already skidding across the infield toward the catcher's outstretched mitt. At the very last instant, Masashi leaped into the air and dove face first across the plate, avoiding the catcher's tag and winning the game for us.
The whole team, including Clay and Dave, started jumping up and down like little kids, hugging Masashi, who was grinning beatifically through a mouthful of dirt. Everyone was laughing and smiling, Wally was joyously barking. And at that moment, nothing else in the world mattered. I was right where I wanted to be, playing baseball with my friends in Los Angeles.
The Griffith Park Pirates took first place this summer. They then lost three straight games and were eliminated from the playoffs. The winter season starts next month.
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