It Feels Better to Have No Itch at All
by Tony Trigilio
Tony Trigilio is an English professor at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois.
Mitch and I were perched in Fenway's right-centerfield bleachers, the Red Sox leading the Blue Jays 6-1 in the sixth inning and the musty smell of pistachios everywhere. I lifted myself from my seat to see which Red Sox pitcher would be warming in the bullpen. I was back in Boston, my old West Fens neighborhood, visiting friends and family for a week this past July, a whirlwind seven days finished with a game at Fenway Park, of course, before my return to Chicago. As I stood peering over the bullpen fence to see who was warming up, a patch of long, green plant stalks emerged in my field of vision. The vegetation competed for our attention the whole game, I guess, but I only noticed the plants now, as I scanned the bullpen worrying that Rod Beck would start warming up for the Red Sox. With every gaze into the bullpen you saw those plants, swaying a bit in the mid-summer breeze, standing as proud as a mascot alongside relief pitchers stretching and gum-chewing and doing anything they can to keep themselves from losing their attention on the game.
"Are those tomato plants?" Mitch asked. He noticed them, too. They were just about as ripe as the tomatoes in my father's garden.
Before I could answer he added, "What are tomatoes doing in the Red Sox bullpen? Who planted tomatoes?"
"And who takes care of them?" I said. "Is this why the bullpen's been so shaky since the All-Star break? It's the vegetable garden -- too many distractions?"
Bulbous green tomatoes glowed in the cheery light of ballpark lamp-towers, and they framed each of Rod Beck's soft-toss warmups. As Beck played catch in the bullpen, back in wistful July when Sox fans awaited the imminent return of Pedro Martínez and Nomar Garciaparra from injuries, those of us in the bleachers could not have predicted the Red Sox's demon-possessed August and September decay. Mitch and I instead basked in the continuous present of Fenway's pastoral tomato patch, content that on this perfect night the Red Sox enjoyed a large enough lead over the Blue Jays that even Beck or Tim Wakefield could give up an inevitable run or two in relief without jeopardizing the win.
As David McGimpsey writes in Imagining Baseball: America's Pastime in Popular Culture, "the pastoral ballpark" exists as "an ideal fictional setting," a place "where the troubles of the city can be escaped, and, through intriguing gambol and play, the true self can be discovered in the unequivocal motions of bodies, and the restored individual can be returned to the city" (67). McGimpsey's context for this pilgrimage toward a "true self" is Shakespeare's pastoral comedies. Perhaps instead, as Fenway fans gazed this summer from the bleachers past incongruous tomato plants and into the pastoral comedy of the Red Sox's accursed motions of bodies, Sox fans might instead imagine T.S. Eliot's old-world gloom from "The Waste Land," where the traditional narrative of individual restoration promised by ancient vegetation myth is overwritten with decay:
That corpse you planted
last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has a tired bullpen disturbed its bed?
McGimpsey's remarks are valuable, but perhaps Sox fans should not wish to discover an essential "true self" in their team. If such a self exists, then the Sox's 83 years without a championship, a period spanning roughly 80 percent of the total history of the major leagues, is a "true self" only insofar as such true selfhood is predicated perpetually on loss. In this summer's tomato-patch game, Derek Lowe did get a save -- the wounded vegetation king still emitted a pulse -- a rarity whose shock was made familiar at least by a predictable first-pitch homer given up by Rod Beck when he relieved Rich Garces in the eighth inning.
According to USA Today's Chris Colston, the tomatoes were Red Sox bullpen coach John Cumberland's own attempt to cultivate a new history for the Red Sox: "John Cumberland thinks he might have the solution for years of New England heartache. He planted a row of tomato plants near the wall in Fenway Park's home bullpen. There are 18 plants, in homage to the team's last championship, in 1918." But seen in the context of Red Sox history, where "gambol and play" is never so much "intriguing" as it is crippling, Cumberland's fortunes mirrored those of the team itself. In mid-August, Cumberland was promoted to Pitching Coach, after Joe Kerrigan was elevated from Pitching Coach to team Manager in the wake of Jimy Williams's dismissal as Manager. Cumberland was fired a few weeks later, presumably because Red Sox General Manager, Dan Duquette, believed Cumberland had a drinking problem. Cumberland denied Duquette's charge, and the players themselves took Cumberland's side, openly expressing their contempt for Duquette. After Duquette fired Cumberland, the Boston Globe reported that Nomar Garciaparra said in the locker room: "That's why no one wants to fucking play here."
The tomatoes, I guess, became the responsibility of others in the bullpen, carrying on Cumberland's pastoral legacy in spite of Duquette. As Eliot might have said, sitting in the tomato patch praying with the rest of us that Wakefield is not called to pitch in another one-run game for the rest of his career: "O keep Duquette far hence, that's friend to men, / Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!"
The day before my Fenway visit, Atlantic coast humidity descended, hung on the city like a choking sweater. I stopped into the local convenience store to buy beer and chips for a birthday party we were throwing that night for Mitch.
"How'reya doing buddy?" the clerk asked as I came through the door. He looked to be mid-twenties, maybe Greek or Italian, close-cropped but with the kind of overbite that probably embarrassed him as a child.
"Just trying to stay cool," I said.
"Where'ya gonna do that, pal?"
"I dunno," I said, reaching for a six-pack of Amstel Light. "I'm thinking maybe I can stay underwater for a few days."
I grabbed a bag of tortilla chips and walked to the register.
"You're making a good first step there, buddy," he said, pointing to the beer. "You got yourself some cold ones."
"That's it," I said. "Maybe I can drink these and pass out -- and when I wake up three days from now, it'll be cool again."
"There you go, pal." He pulled a paper bag from beneath the counter. "What do you think, Sox going to get Urbina or what?"
Sox fans suffered an extra ringing in their ears this year, particular new agitations among the usual annoyances of eight decades without a championship. The city's collective body of goodwill toward the team, always fickle anyway, was eroding, and you could feel this erosion in nearly every conversation. This season was unusual so far, even little children were outspoken in their passionate Red Sox tribalism. When I arrived in Boston a few days earlier, I was met by Mitch's wife, Paula, and their seven-year-old son, Andryc. The first thing Andryc said to me was, "Who's your favorite team in Chicago?" I told him that each year I root for one of the Chicago teams to do well, so at least I can watch meaningful games at one of the local ballparks.
"But no matter what, I'm always a Red Sox fan," I said, "just like your dad."
"My dad doesn't like the Yankees."
Paula smirked. "I don't think many people around here like the Yankees much, Andryc."
This season, with eight decades of failure ringing in our ears, even little children wanted to steer the conversations to baseball, even the kids reminded you that the Yanquis only have to wash their hands once before dinner because the Yanquis know that everyday germs on the telephone receiver are mere detritus from the friction of our daily lives and will not harm you. But Red Sox fans doubt; we've learned that even with one strike away, we have every reason to doubt that the Red Sox can evade the historical determinism of their own failures. So we wash our hands, even when Manny Ramirez homers -- we wash and rewash, it's our doubting disease, as Bernie Williams hits a Beck meatball pitch in the 1999 playoffs with all the certainty of a dreamer and the Sox lose again. But something different was happening this season. Until August, the team featured the best pitching staff in the majors, even with Pedro Martinez injured, and they were competing for first place in the AL East even though Manny was slumping and Nomar's wrist was in a cast. This year's obsessions were fresh -- the team's talent was speakable, believable, maybe because of Manny, maybe because the Yanquis were getting older (a different kind of historical determinism from the sort that causes Red Sox misery), maybe because the past eight decades without a championship grew into tinnitus this year, and finally Sox fans could hear nothing but the ringing in our ears. So we kept washing our hands, doubting they were clean despite our continued washing, rubbing, rinsing.
The plot of this year's Red Sox violated our expectations continually, setting us up for familiar trajectories, fresh collapses, then veering wildly into the implausible, moments when O'Leary or Daubach actually made contact or Shea Hillenbrand took a base on balls. The narrative lingered in the implausible just long enough to suspend our disbelief into the next game. The energy at Fenway this last trip was like nothing I'd felt during the regular season. The repression of all the near-miss years since 1975 was boiling, ready to erupt with two outs and no one on base in the third inning just as likely as it could, more predictably, with runners in scoring position in the bottom of the ninth. Something odd was happening this season. I was afraid to admit it, but it was starting to feel like the kind of season where Dave "Hendu" Henderson accidentally drops an opponent's fly ball into the stands while leaping to catch it in a crucial playoff game, then in the bottom of the ninth hits one of the most exciting home runs in Red Sox history off a two-strike pitch from Donnie Moore. Naturally, this same historical trajectory produced fear in me, because for all Sox fans it unfolds into Henderson's homer in the top of the 10th of Game Six of the 1986 World Series at Shea stadium -- after which the Red Sox turned into toads.
I was just as obsessed as the man selling me this beer. By the time the humidity passed, I decided, Ugueth Urbina would be closing games for the Red Sox -- Lowe no longer blowing games in the ninth, our wounded Bambi limping from the mound back to the clubhouse. Once the humid summer passed into the new school year, I was sure The Bostons, as the venerable Ernie Harwell calls them, would be on their way to playoffs in autumn, another chance to escape the narrative of their own history.
The convenience store clerk put my six-pack in the bag, the chips carefully on top of the beer, then closed the paper cover as if he just gift-wrapped a Christmas package. No need for such careful packing, but the air-conditioning must have given him a feeling of mercy, so he freely redistributed his grace my way.
"They get Urbina," he said, "everything changes around here."
"I sure hope." I was counting pennies, trying to make exact change. "But they have no one to trade for him, and they better not give up any young pitchers."
"What about Offerman?" He sliced his hand at me as if I offended him. Maybe he'd take back the beer and chips if I did not agree, kick me out on my ass if I didn't agree to dump Jose Offerman.
"True enough," I said.
I watched him rest his hand back safely on the counter. I added, "If he could get back to where he was in 1999, a real leadoff threat, then I'd keep him. But he's done nothing for almost two straight years."
"Got that right -- done nothing. If Jose Offerman hit the game-winning homer in the seventh game of the World Series, I'd still get rid of him!"
In the waking dream that is the life of Red Sox fans everywhere, a convenience store clerk can take my exact change for beer and chips and believe two contradictory statements at the same time. He aches to get rid of Jose Offerman because Offerman's lax play over the past two years is one more obstacle preventing the Red Sox from winning their first World Series since 1918; paradoxically, even if Offerman hit a game-winning heroic homer to give the Red Sox their first championship since 1918, he'd still get rid of Offerman. I was back in Boston, thank heavens, where, as Freud once said of unconscious processes, contradictions are "simply disregarded" as a means toward "poetic creation." In this convenience store, the ambiguity of Jose Offerman was "simply disregarded" -- along with his plummeting on-base percentage since 1999 -- as a means toward the "poetic creation" that the clerk and I needed to make meaning from the past eight decades of misery. According to Freud, dreams, like the unconscious, "show a particular preference for combining contraries into a unity or for representing them as one and the same thing." Where the Yankee fan, steeped in the propositional logic of 26 World Championships that would make Aristotle proud, might correct this fellow at the convenience store who so nicely packed my beer and chips, instead I stood there like any Red Sox fan, any pre-Socratic believer in a fiery impermanent world where Ed Armbrister, Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, Goose Gossage, Rich Gedman, Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley, and Bill Buckner never step in the same river twice.
The convenience store's blessed central air-conditioning tank blew throbbing gusts on the last few hairs of my balding head.
"Offerman would be elected mayor of the City of Boston if he won the World Series," I said, "but that doesn't mean he should be batting leadoff the next year, you're right about that."
"There you go, pal. That's all I'm trying to say. All I'm trying to say. Just get rid of him, you gotta wash your hands of guys like that. Try to pick up someone like Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon."
Or someone like Luis Gonzalez, whose value in Arizona must have dipped dramatically, by the tortured standards of our Red Sox reasoning, since he blooped a broken-bat single to win Game 7 of the World Series this year.
Two weeks later, I left for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat near Minneapolis-St. Paul. Ten days without Red Sox news during a pennant race -- ten days of all-day meditation, with no talking to anyone except the retreat teachers. I might as well be going overseas. No books or journals allowed, so even our hyperkinetic writing minds would have to forge a quiet calm, too. Just long enough to distract me, as it turns out, while the Red Sox fired manager Jimy Williams.
Often during the retreat, usually in the bathroom while I watched pint-sized frogs climbing the doors of the stall, I wondered how the Red Sox were doing in my absence. Could they win while I was so far away, sitting and breathing in the Minnesota woods, the baseball tinnitus in my ears silenced, my obsessive Red Sox hand-washing at least temporarily stilled? When will I know how the Red Sox are doing? How will I know? When you are disengaged entirely from Red Sox news, how do you know what you know about the team? The old ways of thinking no longer seem an anchor. I floated like a twig in my mute withdrawal from the world, and in my floating I imagined I might return to a Red Sox history in which the team really did win the 1986 World Series -- the frogs on the bathroom stall keeping close watch on me as I fantasized -- I might return to a team managed perhaps by Yastrzemski who, as I watched the dwarf frogs huff themselves up the door of my stall, always will be famous for his 1978 three-run homer that should have occurred in the bottom of the ninth of the one-game playoff against the Yanquis, which would have set up that phantasmic '78 Red Sox World Series run . . . anything is possible, because even the empirical nest upon which you have built your life seems flimsy once you take yourself out of the mechanisms of the everyday world for 10 days.
But as the events of Summer 2001 reminded me, the tomato-patch narrator who rules the Sox's waking lives is an evil genius, nothing like John Keats's lush "Sylvan historian," his Grecian Urn. Forget Yaz's ignominious popout that ended the 1978 playoff run before it began. Forget 1986; forget Bernie Williams's homer off Beck in the 1999 ALCS, and forget that Offerman could not turn double plays in that 1999 series. Forget it all, because only in dream do the Sox subvert the Grecian Urn, the fleeing lovers touch and the sylvan clatter at last quieted. One morning, sitting on a toilet in the men's bathroom about 4-5 days into the retreat, I remembered the Sox's record before I left (64-47), then traced a rough memory of their schedule in my head. My recollections were vague; the days of meditation honed my mind to a fine filament, a halogen bulb strangely incapable of enumerating the Red Sox's collected failures.
Too bad that I had to re-enter the post-lapsarian world, where pastoral redemption is only a useful fiction. I knew that a West Coast road trip began when I left Chicago. The Red Sox and late-season pennant race road trips are a toxic combination; as I remembered the schedule I felt as if I were tracing the embossed edges of cheap tinfoil diner ashtrays -- peeling beer bottle wrappers at a bar watching Derek Lowe twist his Bambi-face as he tries to maintain a late-inning lead. I remembered Bret Saberhagen was injured right before I left, and I felt even worse. I remembered Pedro; and I thought that, by now, all Red Sox fans -- except me -- knew whether or not he'd be back this season. How do we know what we know about Pedro's inflamed shoulder or John Cumberland's tomato patch? I feared the worst, but I projected, and hoped, at the least, that the Sox would be 70-51 when I got back. A 70-51 record would be a great success -- nearly as important, it seemed, as sitting one hour straight in meditation without swallowing or moving a muscle.
On the drive back to Chicago from the retreat, I stopped for gas and bought a Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I saw the Sox actually were 67-54, and five whole games behind the Yanquis. How quickly we lose the lessons of our own spiritual practice. Less than 24 hours from the end of my retreat, and already I was forgetting that perhaps no better argument exists for the renunciation of worldly desire than the history of the Red Sox themselves. Or, as the second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna once wrote:
If you scratch an itch, it feels good,
but it feels better to have no itch at all.
So too, one is happy in obtaining worldly desires,
but there is greater happiness in having no desires at all.
Just a couple hours on the road, less than a day past the retreat, and already my old itches returned with ringing in my ears and that special obsessive doubt, sure enough, that the Red Sox's hands would never be clean no matter how many times they washed them. Sure, the Red Sox acquired Urbina at the All-Star break, but what if the starters could not carry the team past the sixth or seventh inning each game -- wouldn't this unduly tire the pitching staff, and after all you can wash your hands over and over again but they never truly will be clean until you are convinced absolutely that the spigot itself was wiped clean before you used it. The Red Sox had fallen finally -- and for some fans, inevitably -- behind the Oakland A's in the Wild Card race. I looked at the boxscore of Saturday's win and noticed that rookie Casey Fossum started. This change in the pitching rotation was strange, but at least he only gave up three hits, no runs, in 4 2/3 innings. But why such a short start? Did he hurt himself? Looking further in the boxscore, I saw the Sox stole a couple bases. Odd, the stolen bases. What's going on? In their glorious history of well-fed, softball sluggers, the Red Sox do not steal bases. Everything was out of whack. I felt like Burgess Meredith's character, Henry Bemis, in the Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last." Henry is a wretched, isolated bank teller and bookworm whose days are spent retreating from the world into his book collection. One day, sneaking a book in the bank vault on his lunch hour, an atomic exchange between the U.S. and Soviets wipes out everyone on the planet but him. Straggling from the bank, he eventually finds the ruins of the public library and a treasure of books to read without the interference of his coworkers or his wife. "Time enough at last," he says, picturing, no doubt, an ecstatic lifetime of days ahead with nothing to do but read. As he turns the pages of his first book, he stumbles in the bombed-out rubble and his glasses fall off his head. They hit the ground and break. Time enough at last. Harry's plight is not much different from the scourge of all Sox fans. It's our greatest fear, running out of soap in the middle of our crucial hand-wash rituals.
I read the one-paragraph wire-service game review and came upon this final sentence: "The win was Joe Kerrigan's second in three games since replacing Jimy Williams as manager."
The team eventually collapsed under Kerrigan, going 4-18 in one stretch, and finishing with a 17-26 record while playing for him. Perhaps Duquette is the better Burgess Meredith than I: time enough at last for him to enjoy the team after his removal of Jimy Williams and John Cumberland, time enough to appreciate the implosion he started when he fired them. Time enough to count, even without his eyeglasses, 18 tomato plants in the bullpen unable in their pastoral aggregate to rescue the Sox from the true selfhood of each year's fresh failure.
I spent the rest of the summer watching the Cubs nearly make the playoffs, a balm for the unsatiable itch of my Sox imagination, though I am fully aware that the Cubs' history is almost as embarrassing as anything the Red Sox could conceive. I recommend watching the Cubs to all Red Sox fans; the childlike lack of expectations at Wrigley Field, even when the team is competitive, is enough to remind the most ardent Red Sox fan that baseball can be a pleasant hobby rather than a grievous obsession. I can watch Sammy Sosa take a ball-four wild pitch, scoring Eric Young from third with Wrigley's outfield ivy still green, stubbornly holding out against its variegated autumn decay, and I can enjoy the ballpark pretzel in my hand and the flat taste of soda or beer whether Sosa knocked in a run or whiffed. No itch at all, nothing to scratch at Wrigley. If this were the Red Sox, Troy O'Leary up to bat and looking for any way to swing madly at the first pitch, I'd wave my pretzel in the air like every aggrieved, abused Sox fan, shout to anyone who would care to listen: "I guarantee he'll find a way to hit into a double-play. Even with first base open. Omigod, on the first pitch, too, I know it." The pretzel would taste as stale and over-salted as Brian Daubach whiffing the dirt. The Cubs were a pleasant diversion in August and September, their "gambol and play" a welcome rarity as the Red Sox luffed into autumn like the Flying Dutchman, doomed even as ghosts to sail nearly but not quite around the Cape of Good Hope.