Some minds are steel traps. My mind is a lint trap, retaining only useless fluff, so that I know why .406 is important, but not why 1066 is. If you were to remove, with a flourish, the top of my head—like the silver dome from a serving tray—what you'd find underneath is potluck: batting averages, song lyrics, palindromes, advertising jingles, trivia questions, jersey numbers and movie dialogue. They're all strewn about the ransacked room of my brain, which resembles, in content and cleanliness, Oscar Madison's office.
I can't tell you the atomic number of magnesium, but I can tell you the uniform number of Manny Sanguillen (35), who hasn't played big league baseball in 24 years. The only poetry I've committed to memory is a Hormel hot-dog jingle from the Metrodome that goes, "Great for lunch, great for dinner/You will be a wiener winner...." My brain, in short, has made bad choices, and those choices now define me thusly: Can't quote Kerouac, can quote Caddyshack.
If only sports fans could do a mental spring-cleaning, clearing out the clutter that accumulates every year, we might make room for better things. I'd like to cite, off the cuff, the wisdom of Isaac Newton. But where would I stow the wisdom of Nate Newton, the 335-pound ex-Cowboy who once said of blocking William (the Refrigerator) Perry: "If we rub up against each other the wrong way, we'll start a grease fire"?
That quote is always in there, in the disorderly desk drawer of my brain, beneath a chronological list of World Series winners, the proper spelling of Krzyzewski and the lively names—"Swede Knox"—of long-retired NHL referees. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address takes 30 seconds to recite, but I can't recite it. The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight takes 15 minutes to recite, and I can recite it, verbatim.
I wish it weren't so, for all of this really does keep me up at night. I lie in bed and listen, against my will, to trivia. It runs through my head like mice through the attic. Counting sheep might help. But instead I count uniform numbers, going from 1 to 10 as easily as: Bernie Parent (1), Tommy Lasorda (2), Harmon Killebrew (3), Bobby Orr (4), George Brett (5), Julius Erving (6), John Elway (7), Joe Morgan (8), Gordie Howe (9), Fran Tarkenton (10).
And then, like a practicing pianist returning down a scale, I'll count backward from 10 to 1, drawing a deep breath before thinking: Sparky Anderson (10), Bobby Hull (9), Cal Ripken Jr. (8), Phil Esposito (7), Stan Musial (6), Johnny Bench (5), Earl Weaver (4), Jan Stenerud (3), Derek Jeter (2), Tracy McGrady (1).
Other nights I'll assemble a basketball team consisting entirely of players whose surnames start with A—say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Paul Arizin, Ron Artest, Ray Allen and Alaa Abdelnaby—and pit them against a lineup entirely of B's: Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant and Bill Bradley.
Sadly, my train of thought is a local: It makes all stops. Thus I'll find myself contemplating which team would win, the A's (coached by Red Auerbach) or the B's (coached by Larry Brown) and whether Zaid Abdul-Aziz and Ruben Boumtje Boumtje each requires two roster spots. And so it will go, through the entire alphabet, a single-elimination tournament that generally ends around dawn, almost always with a collection of J's—say, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Sam Jones and Richard Jefferson, coached by Phil Jackson—prevailing. Except for the undermanned I's, with their exhausted roster of Allen Iverson, Marc Iavaroni, Dan Issel, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Darrall Imhoff, no team ever returns the same lineup.
If I could delete these files, and free up memory for other things, I would. I've never forgotten since becoming a baseball fan that Aurelio Rodriguez has all five vowels in his first name or that Ed Figueroa has all five vowels in his last name. But I did forget last week—when meeting the former surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Antonia Novello, in Washington, D.C.—to zip my fly.
How many gigabytes on the hard drive of my mind are monopolized by knowing that E-8 is the scorecard notation for a centerfielder's error? And are those the bytes I might otherwise have devoted to recalling where I parked my car on NBA All-Star Saturday, after which I spent nearly an hour walking around the manifold parking garages attached to the Los Angeles Convention Center, only to find the rented Ford Taurus in—sigh—row E-8?