Good Enough to Dream presents baseball unadorned, a game still sweet enough to lure grown men to leagues where first-class transportation is an old school bus and the infield is likely to be the consistency of thick soup. It is a funny and poignant story of one season and one special team that will make us hesitate before we ever call anything “bush league” again.
|Publisher:||UNP - Bison Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Roger Kahn (1927–2020) wrote a new afterword for this edition of Good Enough to Dream. He is the author of a number of baseball books, including A Season in the Sun, also available in a Bison Books edition.
Read an Excerpt
The Nine-year-old Right Fielder
The first dream, full of innocence and sunlight, is to play the game. The dream shines, with that same eerie, morning light of promise, at Renton, Washington; along Spring Garden Road in Lincroft, New Jersey, and on West Arthur Street, Chicago. To play the game. To play the game superbly. To play with such a brilliant, sunlit, morning grace that the dream itself leaves you at length, like Caliban, able only to speak fragments. "The clouds ... would open and show riches/Ready to drop upon me...."
I remember versions of my small baseball fantasy from loving and faraway days when ball players wore uniforms of hot, baggy flannel and television existed only in the laboratories (and fantasies) of arcane electrical engineers. (Electrical engineers once seemed as arcane as alchemists.)
You could pitch, like Christy Mathewson, Van Lingle Mungo or John Whitlow Wyatt, and then the batters, aggressive, mean-spirited men — none seemed to have shaved this morning — quailed before your fast ball and your swift, snapping curve. Or you could hit. Now the pitcher became a foul, murderous brute who stared out of a storm-cloud visage. He knocked you down and cursed you with what people, in baggy flannel days, described, in studied loathing, as "foul epithets." You stood against his fast ball, his swift, snapping curve, and drove a long, high drive that climbed the sky.
After that long-sounding thwack and a blur of base runners, you were borne shoulder high by exulting teammates. In the crowd beyond, your father cheered and your mother brought both hands to her face, her cheeks glistening with pride. Somewhere else in the careful tapestry of the imagined throng sulked a regretful, baby-doll face. It was the girl who let you get away.
The ball players were seated along wooden benches, anchored to the floor, beneath two rows of orange lockers inside a stout, brick blockhouse of a building. Forty years earlier, W.P.A. workers had laid and cemented every brick. Only four of the players had so much as heard of the Works Progress Administration. "I either read it in history," said a catcher named Mark Krynitsky, "or my Dad, or his Dad, worked for the W.P.A. I don't know."
Light entered through two opaque windows backed by metal grills, and fluorescent tubes glared overhead. The team assembled in the weathered (some would add socialistic) brick was called the Blue Sox and they played their home games in the historic community of Utica, New York. Historic, but in a baseball sense obscure. Those sunlit boyhood dreams project you far beyond a drab clubhouse in Utica; you see yourself moving on winged spikes through carpeted, indeed hallowed, dressing rooms in Los Angeles or New York City.
Still, the Blue Sox were professionals. Their abilities resembled the skills of major leaguers far more closely than the enthusiastic fumblings you see among high school athletes. Professionals in a W.P.A. clubhouse.
Most would be earning $500 a month. Out of that they had to pay taxes, rent, living expenses and meals when the Blue Sox played at home. The cars they drove were small or old or both. But the good athletes, the ones who would turn out to be good, felt pride in their professionalism. Poor, unpampered, they were professional ball players, the job description that covered Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Steve Garvey. On this particular hot June day the manager was hurling forward a campaign, a personal crusade, to give these twenty-five young people, the Utica Blue Sox, a sense of their own professionalism.
I was sitting in the clubhouse not as an auditor, with an intrusive curiosity about the inner workings of a ball club, nor even as a journalist granted, as it were, a privileged pass from the manager in exchange for the promise of a favorable story. I was sitting there, bless my wallet, as a principal stockholder and president and chief executive officer of the team.
Since running a successful election campaign in the sub-senior bunk at Camp Robinson Crusoe forty-five years earlier, I had not been president of anything. I took my motto from William Tecumseh Sherman: "If nominated I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." Aside from that, I don't recall ever being offered any kind of nomination for any kind of office across all those decades. As a writer, I presided over my prose. Typically, I stood as far from high office as Walter Mondale found himself one November morning in 1984. (Or farther yet.)
Now in the clubhouse in the warm June of 1983, I viewed my new-won presidency with resolute optimism punctuated by spasms — cellos playing in a minor key — of undressed and unarmored alarm. Those friends of mine who knew the least about baseball suggested that being president of a low minor league club would provide me with an ultimate toy, far better than my latest stereo set, more fun even than a black Mercedes sports car that an entrancing lady had once offered up as an adjunct to a romance.
Other friends, who knew somewhat more baseball — say, for example, that minor league teams can go bankrupt — put forth temperate forecasts. "Best way to look at it," said one of these, possessed of a dogged literary manner, "is that you're taking over the Pequod. Now maybe you're going to find that old white whale. But maybe you're not."
My cherished Brooklyn Dodger friend Carl Furillo, a veteran of twenty years of glorious professional ball playing, took a colder view. "You're taking over a minor league club? In Utica? You're president? You'll be lucky if you don't have two ulcers by Labor Day."
Whaling voyager or ulcer candidate, I was at the true beginning of the Adventure. Traditionally, of course, baseball seasons open in April. That is a marvelous month to start, particularly in the North where some April days sting with the afterbite of winter and others glow with summer promise. That summer promise and the game of baseball fuse.
But in the low minor leagues in upper New York State April is no month to play professional ball. Spring rains muddy the fields and the small grounds-keeping staffs are no match for the elements of early spring. Besides, the nights — and minor league baseball is a nighttime sport — bite with winds curling coldly from the Adirondack Mountains. In April local fans prefer beer, bowling or warm living rooms to baseball. So this June day in this hot clubhouse was the backdrop for a final preseason meeting for the Blue Sox. We were beginning, we were all beginning, although by then the major league season was two months old.
"Now listen up, everybody," the manager said. He was a powerful six-footer, thirty-one years old, with straw hair and a remarkably mobile face. He had firm even features and a lantern jaw and sometimes under his straw-colored hair the manager, Jim Gattis, looked like a movie version of a grown-up Huckleberry Finn. Sometimes, later, when his blue eyes raged and his mouth set and his jaw jutted, Jim Gattis was a sadistic drill sergeant. Then he looked at his charges with equal measures of hatred and contempt. "Baseball," he would say, "is not like life. It is life. The games are a three-hour lesson in life every day."
Playing for Gattis would not always be pleasant. Careless work infuriated him to a point where I came to fear he might strike one of the Blue Sox. The young players were startled by Gattis' eruptions. Before the Blue Sox summer — variously an idyll and a tornado of a season — reached a molten climax, certain players would wonder if Gattis' single-mindedness did not exceed the bounds of reason and, perhaps, sanity. For his part, Gattis would speak of a generation gap. Ten years ago, he said, when he was twenty-one, everybody played smarter and harder, a hell of a lot harder, than young people played today.
Standing between the orange lockers, with young players docile and expectant on the bolted benches, Gattis declaimed orders for the season. (These would hold, unless I chose to fire him.)
"Don't go getting hammered," Gattis said. "You come to the ball park hung over, and it's going to show. In your road-map eyes. You'll know. I'll know. That's not what you came to Utica for. To get hammered."
Two of the players, both relief pitchers, were smoking. Roy Moretti, a small John Wayne out of Victoria, British Columbia, liked Marlboroughs. Jimmy Tompkins, called J.T., a guitar-playing right-hander from Austin, Texas, who blanketed his appealing complexity beneath layers of cowboy charm, puffed a Barclay, which promised pleasure with low tar. The others looked at their spiked shoes — all black shoes on the Blue Sox, against the current trend that has ball players wearing spikes dyed to a pastel palette. Although many, including Jim Gattis, would get hammered on certain nights, no one responded about his individual right to drink. Low minor league players have no unions, no agents, no lawyers and fewer professional rights than an army corporal.
"What about drugs?" Jim Gattis said. "Our drug program here is simple. Do drugs and you're gone. See ya. You won't be around."
A light scraping of spikes sounded along the concrete floor. Gattis did not distinguish hash from pot or coke. Can you find a professional baseball team today without a group of casual pot smokers? I doubt it. Gattis doubts it too. But the rules a manager issues in these rebellious, sprawling, Grenadan, Reaganistic times, are, like John Keats's pathetic epitaph, writ in water. Still they are important. Without commandments, there would be no guideposts against which to stumble. Without established rules, young people would have no rules to break. Psychologists expand and enlarge this point, repackaging rules as "limits," and write monographs and books on the one-note theme. Nothing frightens the young as much as anarchy.
Only once, to the best of my knowledge, did any of the Blue Sox smoke grass on any bus I rented for the team.
Neither Gattis nor I could testify with accuracy or specificity, should this issue ever come to court. While sweet smoke curled about the back of the bus, Gattis and I, in the two front seats, were getting hammered.
"I want to get to the signs that we'll be using," the manager said. He put on eyeglasses and was able, in his protean way, to look rather like a teacher.
"Okay. Now notice some of the things I do."
Baseball signs, as we shall see, are among the oracular mysteries of the game. I will, with exuberant pleasure, guide you through that particular Delphi as best I can, but for the moment let me simply offer two of Jim Gattis' chrestomathy of signals.
After much cap touching, ear tugging and miscellaneous fiddling with his person, Gattis' right hand moving downward meant that all signs were off. He could brush downward on his uniform shirt or knicker, brush downward along the skin of his left arm, but so long as he brushed downward, the message was the same. A wipe. In other terms, an erasure. Gattis was, in fact, a splendid pantomimist, and this downward motion could suggest a housemaid wiping a windowpane clean. He was such a splendid pantomimist that his movements in the W.P.A. locker room created a third-base coaching box on the concrete where he stood.
"Okay, everybody," Gattis said. "What's this?" He touched the bill of his cap above his left eye, moved his right hand to the upper quadrant of his jersey, touched the bill of his cap above his right eye and wiped his right hand down the left sleeve of his shirt. "What is it?" The glorious rabble muttered in half a dozen voices, "Nothin'."
"Because you wiped," said Don Jacoby, a compact, mustached, earthy twenty-four-year-old from north New Jersey, who flipped pancakes for a living during the eight months between minor league baseball seasons.
"Good," Gattis said. "You got it, Cobra. Very good. Now let's see what else you can get."
As Gattis spoke in an assertive high baritone, one of the ball players slipped from a bench and sat on the floor. It was hot, it was always going to be hot, in the Blue Sox clubhouse. The ball player, Daryl Pitts, of Los Angeles, let his head loll forward and closed his eyes. Gattis did not appear to notice. Someone nudged Pitts and whispered, "Stay awake."
"Hey, man," Pitts said. "I'm real awake."
The manager moved to a more complicated sign. He extended both his arms and his palms flashed upward briefly. He demonstrated how the flash would fit amid a flurry of ear tugs and sideways brushing of his hands.
Usually, in the New York-Penn League, when the count is two balls and no strikes, the batter is allowed to swing at the next pitch. Usually, when the count is three balls and no strikes, he is not. The arm-extended palm flash, Gattis explained, meant that the batter was to do what was unusual. "Everybody know what that word means? Unusual."
Pitts's eyes closed again. A teammate elbowed him awake.
"So when I give palms to you, 2 and 0," Gattis said, "it means take. Don't swing. But when I give palms to you, 3 and 0, the same sign, it means don't take, but swing. The same sign means two different things in two different game situations. Is that clear?"
Various nods and mutters of assent.
"Good," Gattis said. "I know most of you have been to college." His voice turned harsh.
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm here, Skipper. I'm right here."
"Daryl, the count is 2 and 0. What do you do?" Gattis twitched through a set of fake signs, extended his arms with a palm flash and clapped his hands.
"I swing," Pitts announced with great confidence. He had guessed and he had guessed wrong. Other players began to boo.
"I take," Pitts said, waking up too late.
"Same sign," Gattis said. "The count is 3 and 0. What do you do?"
"I take," Pitts repeated. Two guesses. Two wrong guesses.
The booing built toward a crescendo.
"Let me run through this again," Gattis said.
Pitts was confused. He is short, muscular, lovable. He is also, as it will develop, always in debt, as befits a man who claimed that his alimony payments exceeded his monthly salary from the Blue Sox by three hundred percent.
After Gattis' repetition, he turned to Pitts again. "The count is 3 and 0." The manager flashed palms. "Daryl?"
"Take. I don't swing." Three guesses. Three wrong guesses. The season had not yet begun, and already Pitts was 0 for 3.
Other players smirked. A few laughed. "I mean I swing."
Gattis neither smirked nor laughed. The laugh lay in his gullet. Deadpan, he told the Blue Sox, "Look," he said, "these signs are pretty complicated. Maybe they're too complicated for all of us. So instead of using the ones that I've been showing, we'll just use voice signs this year. Like this."
Gattis cupped strong, hitter's hands about his mouth and bellowed over the heads of his players down the orange corridor of the W.P.A. clubhouse.
"Did everybody get those okay?" this fierce manager asked mildly.
Out of the roughly 1,250,000 young men who graduate from American high schools every year, no more than 500 are signed to professional contracts. The chances against your getting any contract at all, on the very lowest level, anywhere in organized baseball run about 2,500 to 1. A certain percentage of male high school seniors don't like to play baseball. Factoring that in, the chances improve to perhaps 2,300 to 1. The Utica Blue Sox call odds like that "awesome." "Awesome" was a word they especially liked along with "seed," which meant a line drive, and "yard," which meant a home run, and "really," meaning "I agree with you," or "Indeed" or sometimes even "Really."
The death of the baseball dream, with all its innocence and sunlight, comes early to most. You have to be very, very good to play professionally, even at a rudimentary stage, and few young ball players are that — very, very good. I lunched once with Hiram Haydn, a famous editor of his day, and the talk about the structure of personal essays moved forward without much excitement. I had the sense in a restaurant called Cherio's, which was noted for northern Italian cooking and martini glasses the size of birdbaths, that Haydn was telling me things he had told many others, many times before. He seemed to be boring himself. Then suddenly he held his great martini glass firmly and said, "You must know Phil Rizzuto."
I said I did.
"Well, how does a small man like that hit home runs in Yankee Stadium? How in the world does he do it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Good Enough to Dream"
Copyright © 2012 Hook Slide, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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