Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Me and Don Baylor

by Tom Vollman

 

I spent most of last night in a batting cage with Don Baylor. I got there on the train—the A uptown to West 4th, then the D to 42nd. Don Baylor just appeared; he walked up in his pinstripes and spikes, climbed in the cage, and swatted a dozen balls with his short, aborted stroke. In his hands, the bat was a toothpick; his cut more of a wood chop than a real swing. He was that kind of pro—he broke more rules than he followed. Still, he and I were there all alone, so after a few cycles, I asked him about my stance.

++++He looked me over, smiled, and went back to his timing. I was in the cage, he was outside. He swung two bats at once, gripped together like Stargell and Parker—the real heavies—the big, lumber-company guys from the late 70s. He stood there in his make-shift on-deck circle and swung as the machine spit pitch after pitch to me. I was left-handed and he was a righty. With the cage set-up, I faced him, which was distracting as hell since there were doughnuts around the barrels of both his bats—one red, one white—that shifted with every swing. It was all thunk, thunk, thwap, over and over again. The doughnuts provide extra weight, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that helped his swing or his timing. But I wasn’t the big-leaguer; he was. With the distraction, I only hit about every other pitch, which was absolute shit for the batting cage.

++++“Well?” I prodded. My cycle was almost over, and I needed to know.

++++He shook his head. “You’re miles from the plate.”

++++A jet raked the sky, and he paused. Its wash shattered the otherwise silent space all around us.

++++“Miles,” he repeated.

++++It wasn’t disappointment that leaked from his mouth, nor was it disdain. It was something else. I couldn’t place it then and still can’t now.

++++I kept swinging, but there was no power—no real explosiveness when I made contact.

++++“You’re just too damn far away.”

++++His words got stuck in the ear holes of my helmet.

++++I told him the plate was a metaphor for my ego.

++++“Your ego is a glass bottle, son.”

++++There was a toothpick perched between his teeth; his lips were the color of the west Texas dirt.

++++I smiled. “But what about my feet?”

++++I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m not really sure what I meant. All I knew was that I’d been working on my foot positioning for some time and felt pretty good about it.

++++“Terrible,” he replied. His tone was plateau flat and serious as New Mexico’s high desert. His eyes, which I caught between pitches, were ferocious—fully fevered with the sort of focus that knew exactly what it took to be really, really good at something. They were sharp, too, edged with a kind of glint that proved he understood, first-hand, what it was like to take a chance and then push past the space of comfort or familiarity and arrive at something different—something wholly terrifying in its newness. I got the feeling that if his eyes could have talked, they’d have mentioned things I couldn’t have even imagined. But eyes don’t talk, which made me wonder if I was lucky or unfortunate or even if talking eyes were something I should have been thinking about in the first place.

++++My cycle was over, so I walked to the cage door. Don Baylor was right on the other side, his face only a few inches from mine.

++++I expected him to say something, but he didn’t. It wasn’t relief I felt as I pulled off my helmet, it was emptiness, and that frightened me. Almost immediately, I wanted to fill it up.

++++Outside of the cage the air seemed lighter. Night birds whistled a haunted, empty tune. Behind me, Don Baylor pulled back the netting and stepped into the cage. I hadn’t counted, but it must have been his eighth cycle. Somehow, I’d done only three.

++++I turned and watched as he dug into the batter’s box. The weight of what he’d said earlier—and now its absence—pressed me into the ground. My eyes met his again. This time, he was in the cage, and I was out. I realized, in that moment, that I was either agreeing with him or picking a fight. I wasn’t sure which. Maybe I was doing both.

++++His bat swatted every single pitch cleanly—another perfect 12-for-12. I hadn’t really noticed it before, but Don Baylor was massive. I wondered how big he must have seemed when he was drafted way back in 1967. Players were different then.

++++“So, is that it?” he asked. He was midway through a conversation I’d not been part of. Again, he leaned in too close, his breath equal parts sassafras and black tea. “Is that it?” he repeated.

++++I squinted, confused.

++++“Do you not know yourself?” he said, flatly.

++++I was beyond uncomfortable. A wave of heat broke across my face, a tiny sirocco that burned my cheeks and chin. My neck was a clogged drain of unattended emotions—emotions that stretched back thirty-some years. Everything—breathing, talking, standing upright—seemed nearly impossible.

++++I shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

++++The batting cage stood in the middle of Bryant Park, on the lawn behind the library. Everything around us was empty—the streets, the sidewalks, the chairs and tables, the subways—the entire city. I could have heard a pin drop.

++++“Look,” he continued, “if you’re really worried about your footwork, I can help.”

++++He grabbed a bat—a wooden bat—and climbed back in the cage with me. His stirrups were pulled high, above black Pony spikes, just like they were in 1983.

++++“Back in Rochester, before I hit the show, we used to have a saying.” His brow furrowed, and he nodded my way. “We said it’s all about how you step in.”

++++“Step in?”

++++“Yeah,” he answered. “Step in.”

++++I watched him through the web of netting. It hung down, fixed somewhere—and I couldn’t quite tell exactly where—above the trees. It was clear, though, that the netting didn’t stretch above the third or fourth floor of the Carbon & Carbide Building.

++++“It’s all in the step-in,” he repeated. “You gotta mean it.”

++++His metal cleats tore at the dirt, his hand up for time even though he didn’t need it. Just habit, I guess. He was fixed there in the box.

++++“It’s like this,” he said, serious as the State of the Union. “Your body gets all taut, then you stamp both feet just to let ‘em know you’re there.”

++++I nodded.

++++Don Baylor adjusted his helmet with a giant, batting-gloved palm. The helmet—a pine tar-stained, matte navy—had no ear flaps. Don Baylor came before ear flaps. The overlaid NY on the front was a dingy brown, and it flaked at its points; those points should have been sharp and crisp.

++++“See?” he said as he flexed his knees. The barrel of his bat twirled slowly at first, then see-sawed above his head. “But,” he cautioned, “it’s gotta be real power.”

++++The machine spit its balls—the rubber-coated kind that were almost yellow, but not quite; the ones that resembled swollen golf balls. Again, Don Baylor whacked every single one—high, low, inside and out—it didn’t matter. With each swing, his front foot stepped the same way. And every time, it was, boom, boom, boom. He had power—real power. He could go opposite field, pull it, send deep line-drives—anything.

++++It was hard as hell, though, for me to pay attention to his mechanics. Everything about his swing and his stance—the way his wrists turned and broke on the off-beat—was so effortless, yet amazingly unconventional. The results, though, were so perfect that it was all I could do to just watch, which isn’t the same as paying attention. Still, I tried to pay attention; I just couldn’t.

++++Instead, I told him I was hungry. The words rushed from my mouth—out-of-control flood waters over too small of a levy. Don Baylor stared at me. I expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. He packed up our things and took me to In-N-Out—the one on Sepulveda next to the airport. That In-N-Out was almost 3,000 miles from Bryant Park, but it made perfect sense, and we were inside at the counter with the beeps and the grease and the kaa-klack, kaa-klack of the potato cutter in an instant. Don Baylor was still in his uniform—the one from ’83. I was concerned about him and his metal spikes on the quarry-tile floor. They didn’t seem safe.

++++I paid, and we sat down. There were two trays between us; our orders numbered 66 and 16.

++++“What is it, exactly,” he began, “that you’re afraid of?”

++++His voice was different in California. It was an unintentional growl—still free of judgment—but that was somehow disquieting. I listened as words gathered in his throat—formed in some dark spot I couldn’t see—then drifted steadily and patiently from his mouth. I tried to recall if anyone had ever spoken to me that way, but I couldn’t.

++++I gazed out the windows across Sepulveda toward a row of shops. There was a tattoo parlor, a hot tub vendor, and a trophy store. I felt like the noise from the planes that dropped so low on approach to LAX should have been louder, but it wasn’t.

++++“Outcomes,” I said with a sigh. I was too honest, and I hated myself for that. “All these goddamned outcomes.” My eyes fixed on his, over and across the table. “I’m not afraid of them, though. Well, not exactly.” I paused and thought about lying. “Just worried.” In truth, I wasn’t honest enough; that’s really what I hated.

++++“Well,” he smiled, “that’s something, I guess.”

++++There was less and less to understand. Or so it seemed. An old, familiar feeling percolated in my stomach, rose up through my throat, and pushed at my temples from the inside. I thought I was annoyed. What was worse, I thought it showed, and I wasn’t okay with that. I thought I gave too much away; I thought I gave it all away.

++++Later, I’d learn that that feeling I had then at the In-N-Out was really less about annoyance and more about anxiety. I’d discover that I wasn’t annoyed, just anxious—deeply and almost paralyzingly anxious. I’d learn that in that moment, I shouldn’t have said or done anything; I’d learn that I shouldn’t have moved or thought or commented. I’d learn that what I should have done was stayed quiet—I should have just breathed. But I didn’t know that then.

++++“Outcomes are everything,” I replied. “Without ‘em, nothing ever changes.” I shifted in the booth. The temperature spiked by about 20 degrees. “They’re measurable, concrete.”

++++Don Baylor puzzled. His hat looked like it had never before been worn. “Really?” he said. “Outcomes?”

++++He took a bite of his Double-Double and shook his head.

++++I felt dismissed, marginalized even.

++++“Hell,” I replied, “they’re what keeps me on track.” My voice held an uncharacteristic shiver. I was almost scared it would break, but I knew that was impossible. I looked at my food. I wasn’t even hungry. Don Baylor grabbed a handful of my fries. Suddenly, I was completely exhausted. “And most of the time I feel like that doesn’t much matter.”

++++A bright-red plane drifted by outside, lower than any of the others. Its jet wash blurred the rows and rows of lights perched high on stanchions—firebirds or phoenix too dumb to die—as pieces of the sky liquified ever-so-momentarily.

++++“Well,” he said, “things do change.” His eyes narrowed, and my heart felt like the last few days of February. “They most definitely change,” he uttered. “Most definitely.”

++++His Dalai Lama bit was off-putting.

++++“Yeah,” I replied, completely ignoring the enlightenment. “But nothing really happens—nothing tangible, at least—not to me.” I sighed, a one-man pity party. “I mean, when it matters—when the stakes are up.”

++++“Ah,” he grinned. His voice pitched suddenly with excitement. Perhaps, though, it was impatience. “But that’s because you’re only looking at outcomes. Outcomes,” he continued, “are mostly beyond your control—beyond my control—beyond anyone’s control.” He grabbed another handful of my French fries. “Busy yourself with outcomes, and it’ll be the end of you.”

++++He said something else, too—Don Baylor did. I would have heard it if I had been paying attention. But I wasn’t. I just couldn’t afford to. The truth was expensive and ever-so-inconvenient. Despite my best efforts, I began to wonder what it was that I was so afraid of.

++++“They’re a ticket to misery,” he added, pointing at me, his fingers thick and glossed with grease. “Outcomes will put you in the ground fast as a motherfucker.”

++++I sat quiet, that final word of his on repeat inside my head. It was unexpected; he hadn’t talked like that before. Motherfucker. Mother fucker. Mother-fucker. Mother. Fucker.

++++“Plus,” he continued, “look at all this weight.”

++++He had a bat in his hand again—a wooden bat—and he outlined my body. We were back in the cage at Bryant Park.

++++I tried to concentrate as he traced an invisible rectangle, the corners of which fell at my shoulders and knees.

++++“There’s just so much.”

++++I had no idea what he was talking about.

++++“Where’s it all come from?” he asked.

++++I shrugged.

++++“Well, that’s what you gotta find out. Ain’t nothing can happen here—” He pointed at my guts. “With all that here.” Again, he traced the rectangle: my right shoulder over to my left, down to my left knee, across to the other knee, then back up.

++++The city was still silent. There seemed to be nothing else but us. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he and I were inside one of those paper In-N-Out boats—the ones that had held our fries and Double-Doubles. Then, I thought about how everything—how me, Don Baylor, all of us—could be inside one of those boats just waiting to be consumed by some great something somewhere out there.

++++All of a sudden, I felt faint. I had to sit down; it all was too much.

++++Don Baylor gazed at me. Like his voice, though, his gaze didn’t hold much judgment, if any. He leaned a bit on the knob of his massive Louisville Slugger. It had to be 36—maybe 38—inches long. I watched the barrel sink an eighth-inch into the clay. The barrel top had one of those Major League concave cuts. I imagined the imprint it would leave.

++++“Don’t worry,” he said, finally. “There’s far more weight to the things you haven’t done, than there is to any of those you did.”

++++I looked over his shoulder out across the narrow stretch of park to 42nd Street. Perfect buildings, shaped and contoured to each other, stood firm, torches of narrow light white-washing their facades. Something inside me shivered and shook, rushed with immediacy, then threatened to break free.

++++“So,” he followed, “all you’ve gotta do is figure out what it is you’re hiding from.”

++++“Hiding?” I puzzled.

++++“Yeah,” he nodded. “Hiding.”

++++I smiled. The way he said hiding made it sound as though it wasn’t something to be ashamed of.

++++I shifted my feet in the gravel that lined the wide paths around the central lawn. For a moment, I thought about the fact that I might be hiding from what I perceived to be my own inadequacies. But that couldn’t be it. That couldn’t be it at all.

++++“It just doesn’t seem like it should be this hard.”

++++“What?” he asked.

++++“Anything,” I followed. “Everything—”

++++The pregnancy of my pause was exacerbated by the absolute dull silence of the city.

++++“It’s just that—” I aborted my own thought and changed directions. “The whole thing is just so complicated.”

++++Don Baylor stared at me. If confusion was a crown, he’d have worn it like a king.             “I dunno,” I stammered. I realized I was making less and less sense by the instant. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this kinda thing.”

++++“Oh,” he laughed, “I see.”

++++He took off his hat, pressed the brim flat, and replaced it.

++++“I see now,” he repeated. “You want everything to be just as you imagined—just as you thought it should be—how it would be.” He paused and stroked his mustache. His hands looked even bigger than they had before. “Well,” he said, “that is a problem.”

++++He thought I didn’t get it. I could tell. He was upset—frustration became a sudden algae bloom on the lake of his face. To be fair, there were a lot of things I didn’t get. But I got this one. I understood. That’s why outcomes were so goddamned important to me. The way I imagined things and the way they ended up were always different. Outcomes charted my course; they kept me going. I was terrified to think about what might happen if I didn’t pay attention to them.

++++But Don Baylor thought outcomes were my problem. Don Baylor thought that the fact that I wanted things to end up the way I imagined them would destroy me. I got it—I understood him. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it, but not because I didn’t get it. I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t want to. I’d later learn why. I’d learn that the problem—as I recognized it—wasn’t the same one he recognized. I guess maybe that’s why we occupied two different spaces in two different worlds. Maybe that’s why he stood so close to the plate. Maybe that’s how he could talk the way he did. Maybe that’s why when he mentioned hiding, there was no shame. Maybe the step-in was only half of it. Maybe the other half—the one nobody, not even Don Baylor talked about—was the step-away. Maybe the step-in and the step-away worked in tandem as two balanced halves of the same moment: a step away from what was imagined and a step in to what actually showed up.