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That book, Three Bricks Shy of a Load, is the only one of my 23 that is mentioned in the Harvard University Press's A New Literary History of America. Maybe I peaked at 33. But when I saw Larry Bird make a completely unexpected but perfect pass on the run, I didn't want to write about that, I wanted to write like that. And I didn't think I could do it in the relative stability of one magazine, however nuts its personnel. I quit SI on good terms and went on to do more work for the magazine on a freelance basis, as I am doing now, but I haven't had a job since. I've made a good living, and I've hit some licks, but I'm still tinkering with my swing.
"Anything goes on this show, folks. Tonight we're considering the difference between a self-caricature and a pain.
"A self-caricature and a pain are asked the same question: Would you say your role as a closer is like that of a federal marshal, who rides into a town full of corruption and bullies and cleans the town up and then rides off into the sunset?"
"Pain: 'That's not what federal marshals did.'"
I could never have sustained a famous TV show, since this is a principle I live by: If you want to keep on thinking of something you're doing as a vivid experience, don't allow it to be videotaped. Today I watched a video that caused me to abandon a freelance assignment from SI in 1992. I was going to write about finding my batting stroke. In time I would be able to describe my readiness at the plate almost poetically, as Curtis Granderson of the Yankees did this spring: "You got to be balanced, almost to the point where you stop moving, but you are ready to continue to move."
I had been trying to connect with my natural stroke since I was eight or nine. In my side yard, by myself, in Decatur, Ga., I could pretend to be a great hitter. When I played there with other kids, they tended to interfere with my sense of destiny. One summer, there was a girl named Lura. Cross-eyed and inscrutable, considerably bigger than I or any of my playmates, Lura would wander up out of rightfield, which was a patch of woods, and she would go over to the batter and take hold of the big end of his bat. Then she would just stand there. You couldn't get the bat away from her, because she was too strong. You couldn't let go of the bat and pick up another one, because she would take the bat you'd turned loose and go off back into the woods with it. You had to just stand there and argue with her. And Lura was not much of a talker. I would find myself thinking, How in the world can I have allowed my game to come to this?
Even when I was alone, pitching to myself, the field constricted my stroke. Rightfield, as I say, was woods, and leftfield was our house. If you could clear the corner of the house, you were into left center, but if you didn't clear it, you might break a window, so you concentrated on dead center. Across the back edge of the yard was a rusting sheet-metal fence, about two feet high. To clear it you not only had to be a slugger, you also had to be a marksman—between you and the fence stood a fig tree, several pin oaks and dogwoods, a swing set, a disused chicken house and frequently a big wash that my mother had hung out on the line.
If you did hit one over the fence, your emotions were mixed, because that meant you might have to spend from then until dark, or suppertime, poking around in a tangle of vines, dead trees and wet black leaves looking for the ball, which was either the color of the leaves from being taped up or else a scruffy greenish-brown that blended with everything. There was a good chance you would find not that ball but one or two others that had mildewed. Nothing can undercut your sense of being a great hitter like the sight, the smell and the feel in your hand (or rather between your thumb and forefinger) of a baseball that has mildewed.
To begin to come into my rightful swing at last, I went to the batting school of Amos Otis, the old Kansas City Royal, in Los Angeles. My son Kirven was living there then, so we both took videoed instruction. On the tape Kirven looks like an athlete and improves with Otis's pointers. Me, I'm making contact, but I look too much like an old, stiff guy fighting off rats with a stick.