Holes in the Roster — Dan Fleshler
During our journey to find sand hill cranes, as we rumbled on Route 80 past the grassy inclines west of Davenport Iowa, Katie and I listened to the Cubs’ opening day game against the Mets and tried to put together the All Seriously Disturbed Team.
To qualify for this one, a major league baseball player had to have deep-seated psychological problems. We weren’t looking for mere flakes or eccentrics here.
Katie was driving. Before her, I’d never met a woman who could help me put together my rosters.
“Roger Moret’s in the bullpen,” she said.
“Obviously,” I said. In April, 1978, about a year before our trip, Moret suffered from catatonia. He sat in the Texas Rangers locker room after a game, not moving, unresponsive, and had to be hospitalized until he snapped out of it. He eventually tried pitching again but clearly couldn’t function properly.
“Is he your role model?” she asked.
That stung. But I said, “Good one. Our catcher’s Willard Hershberger.”
“I just read about him. Only player in the majors to commit suicide during the regular season. Nineteen forty. On the Reds. He was hitting .309.”
“.309! So he was having a good year,” she said. “How could anyone possibly kill himself when they’re hitting .309?!”
“Fascinating question. I don’t know. But he’s eligible.”
“Brilliant,” Katie said. She was a little weak on the old-timers, didn’t spend time like I did reading about the history of the game or scanning the Baseball Encyclopedia. But she devoured the Sporting News and loved the Cubbies and the Bulls and the Bears. And she was sharp as a tack and very pretty with downy brown hair and I couldn’t fathom how I was going to live without her.
Amidst the crackle and static on the radio, Vince Lloyd, the WGN announcer, described a pop-up by the Cub’s new second baseman, Ted Sizemore. It looked a foul ball in the seats behind third base but the incomparably wild wind in Wrigley Field blew it into fair territory.
We both laughed. “Only in Wrigley,” she called out. Then she sighed. It came without warning, so I had no time to come up with another deeply troubled player to make her feel better. I saw her eyes well up.
“Oh no,” I said.
“Sorry,” Katie said. “I’ll try not to cry. I promise.”
Undaunted, I added to the roster on a piece of paper wedged inside her Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. We meant no disrespect to these players. On the contrary, I felt profound empathy for each one:
|1B||Mike Ivie||Clinically depressed about poor fielding when Giants tried to convert him to catcher. Eventually hospitalized.|
|2B||Johnny Evers||Breakdown, ca 1911. But kept playing. Snapped at everyone. Known as “The Human Crab.”|
|C||Willard Hershberger||Most unfathomable suicide in human history|
|LF||Jimmy Piersall||Hurled himself into walls. Once ran bases backwards.|
|P||Roger Moret||Stranded, immobilized. Was he conscious? How much did he suffer during these episodes? Was he relieved of suffering?|
This was the pre-Google era, so we had to rely on memories of useless and delicious trivia and my well-worn copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia in the back seat. It had taken us much less time to finish other rosters since we’d left Chicago that morning, like the All Body Parts Team (Bill Hands, Barry Foote, Elroy Face, Sixto Lezcano…) or the All Harmful Names Team (Hack Wilson, Enos Slaughter, Ray Blades, Big Poison Waner…).
“Gary Templeton at short,” she said, gamely. He famously gave his middle finger to Cards’ fans and was hospitalized after a nervous breakdown.
“You’re the best,” I said.
She seemed very happy as we moved through western Iowa, even though the radio signal faded. At one point, after I took the wheel, she pointed to something off to the right and pulled out her binoculars.
“Couple of broad winged hawks,” she said. “Can really see the patches on the tail well. Black and white patches.”
I’d never done much birding before we met. She’d taught me a lot in the year we’d been dating. I’d even begun my own “life list” and had started to note when I saw birds for the first time (tufted titmouse, wood duck, rose-breasted grosbeak), which gave me another reason to live.
When a news report from Omaha told us the Cubbies had lost, neither of us complained. The burden was much easier to bear when I suggested that Billy Martin, then the Yankees’ hotheaded manager, should join the coaching staff: “Drinking problem. Death wish.”
“Good one,” she said. “I don’t know anybody else who’d want to take this trip.”
“You’re right. There isn’t anybody else.”
“Sorry I blew up at you this morning.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
“I’m not going to cry anymore.”
“It’s ok,” I said.
“I only start to cry when we’re having fun.”
“But if I don’t cry, you should know that I still might be having fun.”
She didn’t say what we both knew she was thinking: “Fun’s not enough.”
We were headed for the annual rendezvous of the sand hill cranes in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley. Katie had wanted to make this trip since she’d learned about the cranes’ migration when she was in high school in Skokie. Thousands of the birds journey from the south in March and April. Waiting until the snows melt in Canada, many of them feed in the cornfields and meadows near the North and South Platte during the day, then sleep in sandbars and marshes at night.
At first I was surprised and touched and hopeful when she called to invite me. Then, after explaining that we might see the cranes do their mating dance, she announced, “No matter what happens, we’ll always be buddies, right?”
In the morning, soon after we’d left Chicago, we had a brief loud fight after I told her I’d turned down a gig as an entry-level sportswriter for the Tribune. I’d sent them some of my college clips and applied after she kept bugging me to try. Her father, a bigtime defense attorney who begrudgingly tolerated my presence in her life, knew some editors and had put in a good word for me. For her sake, I’d almost said yes when they made the offer. But I’d backed out, as—for the time being—I felt better suited to my current job as a guard on the floor of the Options Exchange.
She got mad when I told her I didn’t want to be a rookie sportswriter, spending my precious minutes covering dog shows and polo matches and high school ball.
“So where are you going Frank?” she asked.
“And after that?”
I couldn’t answer.
Since dropping out of law school two years before, I hadn’t been idle. I’d sold aluminum siding and worked a forklift at a warehouse. I’d been an elevator operator. I’d churned out a novel but couldn’t find an agent, let alone a publisher, and after writing a bunch of short stories, I’d landed two in literary journals that didn’t pay me a dime.
The job at the Options Exchange was my favorite. Except for the occasional tourist, no one wandered on the floor who didn’t belong there. I stood around all day while the traders howled and yelled in language that seemed easy enough to learn if I’d wanted to learn it: “Put Am.Tel.7.0” “C Data Strike Price 76!” “Call Down. 3.45!”
On good days, the howls and yells were barely heard background music while I dreamed up stories, savored memories of happy times with Katie or constructed rosters that were works of art, like the All Emotional States Team: John Stuper (P), Jolly Cholly Grim (1b). Bob Black (2b), Handy Andy High (SS), Dick Grey (3b), Hank Sauer (OF), Happy Felsch (OF), Smead Jolley (OF), and, of course, John Joseph Alfred Bliss (C). On other days, I clenched my teeth and stared into space and waited for the sense of failure and self-loathing, sometimes accompanied by suppressed screams that welled up in the back of my throat, to subside.
Katie had done a splendid job of learning the language of writs and torts and was doing well in her first job out of law school, a small medical malpractice firm. She was about to move into a new one-bedroom apartment near Lake Shore Drive. She hadn’t invited me to join her, we hadn’t even discussed it, as we’d stopped the casual talk about living together, how big a place we’d need, how many bathrooms.
Apparently, Katie wanted to find someone whom she and her friends referred to as “The One” and then settle down. I didn’t know what qualifications The One would need. But I understood that an entertaining baseball nerd with an eidetic memory who lacked discernable plans to make much more than the minimum wage wasn’t a top prospect.
It was too dark to do any birding by the time we got close to crane country, so we stayed in a motel near Hershey, Nebraska. I lay in bed and perused Bill James Baseball Abstract while she took a shower. When she emerged, wrapped in a bath towel, her skin glistened in the overhead fluorescent light.
We hadn’t slept together in three weeks.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of an Ivory Soap commercial,” I said.
She didn’t respond, just slipped into her nightgown and got under the covers.
“I’m sleepy from the drive,” she said. Her back was turned toward me. “Need to crash now.”
I thought about asking, “Are you sure?” but was afraid of the answer, so I just said, “Sweet dreams.”
These days, there is an Audubon Sanctuary in Rowe and there are plenty of guided tours and trail maps to help people find the cranes. Back then, we had a migration map marked with a few clusters where the birds were likely to congregate. Using that as our guide, we turned south off of the interstate and headed towards Lowell. At that point, even I had enough sense to stop dwelling on seriously disturbed ballplayers. There were still holes in the roster but we were here to fulfill Katie’s birding dreams. Within a few minutes, she told me she spotted some near the North Platte and told me to pull over. There were about twenty of them in the corner of a gently sloping cornfield. Not far away, a tractor churned along. We got out of the car and took turns peering through her binoculars.
They were funny looking things: long-necked, gawky, dull grey. Their foreheads were the color of dirty bricks. They moved awkwardly on stilt-thin legs, like shore birds out of their element, pecking at roughage on the ground, ancient and graceless.
One of them threw itself into the air, raising and lowering its wings, letting loose with a low, rolling “Kroo.” It stayed aloft for a moment, then came to rest on the retractable landing gear it used for legs.
A few more flew above us, their necks extended, all of them croaking and stuttering. They sounded like sick buglers. We watched another one rise up from the cornfield, frolic briefly in the air draft, and land. I almost said, “You’ve waited years for this?” but restrained myself. Instead, I asked, “Is that the mating dance? Doesn’t look like they’re trying very hard.”
“They’re probably rehearsing for the real dance,” she said. “That comes later, up north. This isn’t the real thing.” She sounded a bit disappointed. “Still, I thought it would be more elaborate, more showy.”
We kept seeing small clumps of them as I drove slowly toward the South Platte. She didn’t complain but I thought she was starting to get frustrated. I knew she’d expected something more, something magical, after that long trip.
I pondered whether to discuss the Cubbies’ strengths and weaknesses but we’d already had that discussion about twenty times in the last few months and there was nothing new to say. I considered the idea of cheering her up with a new roster in honor of the cranes. The All Funny Names team, perhaps. Bow Wow Aarft, Dooly Womack, Memo Luna, Urban Shocker. There were probably scores of funny names if I wanted to find them. But when I saw her hunched forward, looking glum and dispirited, I assumed that offering them wouldn’t help.
“Be patient,” I said. “We’ll find more.”
“You think I’m sad just because of the birds?! You really are a fucking idiot, aren’t you?!”
A few minutes after we crossed river, we found a road that the map indicated would lead to a migration cluster. We parked the car on the side of the road, grabbed a blanket and walked a few minutes through thick underbrush until we reached the river. The air felt wintry. The sun was setting. The river wasn’t wide or deep. Silvery and fetid, it rolled sluggishly over rocks and sandbars and patches of marsh grass. There were just a few cranes in a wide brown meadow on the opposite bank about a hundred feet away.
I put the blanket on the ground and we sat down. Upstream, about a dozen cranes called out from the sky. They joined their comrades in the scraggly brown meadow. Then two more clumps flew from different directions and converged and settled into the meadow. I could see four specks in the greying sky. In a moment, I realized that each speck was not one bird, but twenty or thirty. I glanced at her, saw that she grinning.
They started coming from all directions, rushing overhead as if to beat the darkness. The sky was never thick with them, and the fact that I could always estimate the number of new arrivals made them seem modest and friendly.
The meadow was as large an American Legion outfield. Within a few minutes, it was crammed with birds, some of them pecking at the ground, all of them part of a swelling, maniacal chorus. Even sick buglers can make astonishing noises when there are hundreds of them blaring together in a field, at dusk.
Katie gripped my arm, dug her fingers in hard. It was instinctive, the grip she used when she was absorbed in the late innings of a close game. I waited for her to realize her mistake, but the hand remained.
They kept coming. Cranes from every cornfield in the world were heading for that meadow. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their formations, no symmetrical Vs. It felt like the two of us were sitting on an isolated island of modern time, under a funnel of blue and grey light. In the meadow, eight or nine of them took off, like the end of a blanket being lifted from the ground, and then disappeared in the center of the bird storm.
It was cold enough to see the steamy plumes of our breath as I put my left hand in her back pocket.
“Damn you, Frank,” she whispered.
I didn’t see a leader rising out of crowd and setting them all in motion. I blinked and they rose up in unison, a vast swath of grey pinions and flickering red foreheads. Their cries rose with them, left behind echoes rocketing around the soil. They veered in our direction and flew above us, almost blotting out the sky.
“Jesus Alou,” I whispered. “Preacher Rowe.” The names came of their own accord, spilled out of the inner catalogue I had tended and nurtured for years. “Yogi Berra.”
“Huh?” She kept holding on to my arm.
“The All Sacred Names Team,” I said. “Wanna work on it later?”
“Damn you, Frank!”
I could sense her indrawn breath. They turned to head downstream, the cranes in front trading places with those in the middle. There was a slight bend in the river. By the time she let her breath out, the last of them were smudges on the horizon.
Dan Fleshler is a writer and public relations consultant living in Jackson Heights New York. He has published fiction in North American Review, narrative non-fiction and feature stories in The New York Times, Daily Beast, HuffPost, Forward and other outlets, as well as poetry in Buddhist Poetry Review. Very briefly, in the 1980s, he was a sportswriter for The Village Voice. Twitter: @fleshlerd