When I shed this mortal coil it may surprise St. Peter, on examining my file, to discover that I was once a sportswriter.
Indeed, not a mere sportswriter, but a baseball writer, a craft which, at its best, is to the general run of sportswriting what a Vladimir Ashkenazy concert is to your ten-year old’s piano recital. Not that I did anything approaching the wizardry of such modern masters as Tom Boswell of the Washington Post or columnist George Will. I was, however, a certified baseball correspondent, with a laminated pass that got me everywhere: the pressbox, the locker rooms, the field during batting practice. And if, in retrospect, the clips are not exactly the prose I’d want chiseled on my tombstone, at least, as they say, I took a serious cut at the ball.
Like most good things in life, the whole business was accidental. I was writing about religion, foreign policy, and whatever else struck my fancy for the Seattle Weekly when our baseball guy quit to become the Associated Press stringer in Seattle. The idea quickly struck: why not? So I brashly proposed to the publisher and editor, my friend David Brewster, that I take over the baseball beat in tandem with another friend, John Miller, then a TV news commentator but within two years engaged in an even stranger profession: Congressman. Brewster, a skillful editor and a man happy to try anything once, acquiesced in this madcap scheme, so Miller and I were duly anointed the baseball correspondents of the Seattle Weekly.
The venue for our labors was the late Kingdom: with the sole exception of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, probably the worst place to play baseball ever built. But, hey, it was a real major league ballpark, and I had the run of it. The Seattle Mariners in 1982 were in a “building phase” that bid fair to extend into the indeterminate future, and were nothing like the wonderfully skilled semi-juggernaut they are these days. Still, there was a nice mix of eager youngsters and grizzled retread veterans, and for a few months in mid-season they made a real run.
Thus, among other things, I got to watch Gaylord Perry greaseball his way to his three hundredth career victory; my scorecard for that epic game, duly autographed, bears telltale stains indicative of Gaylord’s fondness for the effects of certain carnal lubricants on the aerodynamic properties of a baseball. During the game (surrounded by media luminaries like the late, great Dick Schaap, a truly lovely man), I tried to adumbrate a moral theory to the effect that what Perry was doing was wrong, but not precisely sinful, to no discernible effect on the media brethren in conclave assembled.
Earl Weaver had announced his retirement for the end of that season so, as a native Baltimorean, I was eager to meet the great man on the Orioles’ last trip to Seattle. The visiting manager’s dressing room in the Kingdome was, at best, ten by ten — and the visiting coaches had to dress there, too. After the game Weaver held court, sitting buck naked behind an army-surplus metal desk, beer can in one hand, chain-smoking Raleighs with the other, and talking baseball. The next day, I told my wife that I now had some idea of what it must have been like to listen to Homer recite the “Iliad.”
The Mariners had several very smart players that year, including Bruce Bochte, a hard-hitting first-baseman who liked to think about the meaning of sport and had serious religious interests. One night in the dugout, during batting practice, I talked with him about what it meant, spiritually, to live so intensely through your body, attuned to its every nuance because it was your livelihood, your craft, and, in a very precise way, your self all rolled up into one. It was, in its way, a preliminary discussion of John Paul II’s theology of the body, which insists that we take being enfleshed creatures with utmost seriousness — unlike our culture, which treats the body as a machine we happen to inhabit and can manipulate at will.
The summer of ‘82: if this be our exile, what shall our fulfillment be?