Fantasies and Painful Memories
“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”
Henry David Thoreau
I read in this morning’s paper where Chris Pronger checked Justin Bieber into the boards at a charity hockey event. This image has gone viral. For those of you who are not hockey fans: Chris Pronger is a former St. Louis Blue (he played for other teams) who’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame thanks to several attributes: he is huge, strong, and had a reputation for being rather rough on his opponents. Justin Bieber… Well, you probably know more about him than you do about American history. But enough of social commentary.
My wife and I have a retirement morning ritual: we drink coffee while we read the paper. She gets the news section first; I get the sports page. We comment about the stories as we read. It takes some getting used to the routine. Sometimes one of us feels like a story has to be shared right away, but the other is deeply immersed in a news segment of his/her own. So we have to sneak a look at the other and make a decision on the fly as to how absorbed our partner is into his/her reading. Once we catch the slightest hint of relaxation in the other’s face we dive in.
Did you hear about Pronger checking Justin Bieber into the boards?
“Just a minute. I’m reading about mountain lions in the Ozarks. Did you know it’s a female?”
I curse myself. Once again I mistimed my comment. Somehow it’s not the same when you have to wait a few seconds to make a point that you feel had to be made right away. I move on to the next story: a scientific study on what happens to a hockey team’s winning percentage after the team changes coaches in the middle of the season. Not nearly as much fun as hearing that Bieber got smacked.
Finally she drops her paper.
“What did you say?”
Nothing important. Just that Pronger checked Bieber into the boards during a fantasy hockey game.
Of course not. It’s a charity thing.
“No; I mean… Doesn’t it hurt?”
Of course. It’s Pronger, for Heaven’s sake.
“Don’t you think Bieber would mind?”
Hell no! To get checked by Pronger is probably the fondest fantasy of any Canadian boy!
“But it hurts!”
Sure! Otherwise it wouldn’t count. It’s a man thing. A Hall of Fame defenseman slams into you and makes it hard for you to get out of bed for a week. It can’t get any better than that.
“Why would you relish pain?”
Don’t you get it? You can tell that story thousands of times. Any guy who hears it will die of jealousy. Better than being able to say that you went to High School with a supermodel, and that she smiled at you once.
She moved her head from one side to the other and quickly picked up her paper. My signal that she’s done talking about this.
I dropped my paper. Memories of painful sports moments drifted into my head. The fractured metatarsal when I came down awkwardly after a successful volleyball spike. The torn right elbow MCL during a heated tennis game. The beanball that gave me a weeklong headache. It occurs to me that sports injuries are an essential component of every country’s GNP. I make a mental note: write a letter to President Trump suggesting that he sign an executive order to ban any kind of protective sports helmet. It’s all government intrusion into our basic freedom to cripple ourselves if we so desire. Add a provision that forces all children over 7 to leave their homes at 8AM and not come back until it’s dark outside. Most of my traumas happened during those hours, far away from any adult supervision. We should get a jump on economic activity almost immediately. Splint and cast makers will have a field day. Orthopedists and neurosurgeons will build him a shrine. But I digress.
Then it came to me. The time that I butchered Orlando Cepeda’s ground ball. That was definitely my number one sports injury moment. It’s been twenty years and I’m still proud of it, in a very embarrassing way.
It was a fantasy baseball camp. This is where retired Major League Baseball players agree to rub elbows with clumsy and unskilled people like me who at one point, hopefully only when they were children, had dreamed of getting paid for playing ball. My childhood baseball experience was particularly painful. I was the only kid in the neighborhood who tried to study the game. I ordered books that promised to teach me how to swing a bat, and throw a curve ball, and cover first when the ground ball went between first and second. I read all about the lives and travails of any and every MLB superstar. I particularly worshipped people like White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox, who was not fleet of foot nor was he powerful, but who ended up making it to the All Star game. He gave me hope.
Sadly, all to no avail. I can’t run. I have the weakest arm of any human being ever (Those with rotator cuff injuries excepted). I can’t hit. Other than that, I would have been a pretty good ball player if one could count on the ball being hit straight at me, slowly, every time. In retrospect, it was a very smart move on my part to shift part of my attention into being a responsible student so that I could have good enough grades to get into Medical School.
Back to fantasy baseball. It probably began with that Fantasy Island TV show. Ricardo Montalbán would welcome wealthy people to this island so that they could live out one of their fantasies. At the end of the show, without exception, the visitors realized that their fantasies were not as desirable as they had imagined. They developed what we now call a reality check. They went back to their presumably boring lives wiser and happier.
Fantasy baseball needs several ingredients to be successful. You need to have enough money to pay to travel somewhere, usually a warm location with little rainfall. You will need to cover hotel fees and meals. There must be an organizer who has access to the former MLB stars; someone who can be trusted to pay the players once the week is over. And you must find retired MLB players who need or want extra money (an increasingly difficult quest) and who must agree not to break out in convulsive laughter when they see how inept some of their pupils are.
My camp was special, because only doctors were allowed to apply. This made it easier on the organizer, because in general doctors can pay more. And more difficult, because physicians as a group tend to overestimate their capabilities. This is why on the evening before we started there was a dinner party, and our director made a very strong point of telling all of us that excessive displays of macho behavior were discouraged, and that anyone in violation of this policy would be expelled from camp, without a refund.
“You’re here to have fun. None of you has the talent to be a MLB player. No one cares how well you do, or how hard you can throw. Relax.”
No need to tell me, but I could see some faces in the crowd that looked disappointed. Really? They thought that at our age someone would discover that we had what it takes?
The evening took a positive turn when Orlando Cepeda walked in. For those of you who do not know: Cepeda played for the Giants and the Cardinals during a very successful career. He’s Puerto Rican. His father, if you listen to any Puerto Rican old-timer, was the greatest ball player the island has ever produced. I was there when Cepeda played his first professional baseball game, in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He was just a kid, maybe 18 at most. He hit a double in either his first or second at bat. From then on he became my idol.
His father was nicknamed “Perucho.” Orlando was therefore called Peruchín, or little Perucho. I followed his career as if my existence depended on knowing every detail. When he made the Major Leagues it was a dream come true for me. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1966, the same year that I started Medical School in St. Louis. Life could not be any more perfect than that. He won the World Series the following year.
So he walks into the dining room and I think that there is no way, ever, that there can be a more perfect moment. I ran up to him to introduce myself. Not thinking even for one second that thousands of people before me have done exactly the same thing to him.
He was very gracious. We talked about baseball, and Puerto Rico, and the Cardinals. I told him that I had traveled a long way to learn how to play first base from him. He pretended to be happy to hear this.
“Tomorrow morning. See you at the ballpark,” he said.
I could hardly sleep. The next morning, I was the first one in line for warmups. When Peruchín walked into the field I quickly but as unobtrusively as possible edged my way to be close to the first base line. When he saw me he waved at me and pointed to the base. He picked up a bat and a baseball.
My heart was pounding. Cepeda threw the ball up in the air and took a swing at it. A very short, abbreviated cut. Clearly he was making allowances for the age and skill of his fielder. I bent my knees, just as the books I had bought so long ago had suggested that fielders do. The ball took one bounce. With some concern I saw that it was a pretty tall bounce, and that the ball had a lot of spin on it. The second bounce went even higher. I could no longer see the seams on the ball: it was spinning so fast. The third bounce landed three feet in front of me. As I bent forward to catch the ball it took a crazy upward slant. It landed right in the middle of my chest, in the lower part of my breastbone. I felt like I had been punched by a heavyweight boxer. I fell backwards, right on my butt.
“Are you OK?” said my idol.
Sure! Bad bounce. It doesn’t hurt, don’t worry.
I struggle to my feet. I must remain upright; I say to myself.
“Get back behind the base. I’ll hit you another one.”
I look around for help. I see that there’s another doc who has drifted over to first base.
He’s standing in line. Why don’t you hit him one, and I’ll back him up.
I waited until Peruchín was looking somewhere else. Then I snuck into the dugout. I avoided him the rest of the day, and for the following week. When I got to my hotel that afternoon I looked at my chest. There was a bruise the size of an orange there. OK; it felt like an orange. Probably just a lemon. It was exquisitely tender.
I finished out the week. By Thursday afternoon nine of my ten fingers were swollen twice their normal size. A result of catching baseballs; lots of baseballs, and the fact that when you hit a ball with a bat, if you don’t catch it just right, that bat will vibrate in your hands and make your fingers numb for an hour afterwards. I could not take half a step without wincing in pain due to sore thighs and calves. Then I thought about MLB players who do this, every day, for seven months out of the year. Who catch line drives in their shin bones and get up to finish the inning. I decided then and there that if someone pays them ten million dollars a year to perform, then well, they deserve it.
Because I certainly can’t do it.
Ricardo Montalbán was right. Most of our fantasies are just that: dreams that are best left alone. I can guarantee you that they’ll never turn out the way you thought they would be. Best to base our dreams in our truest life: what we experience every day. Don’t reach for the stars. Just touch someone you love.