.008 is my .344

 

I grew up in the painful 70’s, a time when baseball greats Yastrzemski, Rice, Lynn, and Evans, Luis Tiant and “Spaceman” Bill Lee gave their all every season and broke my heart each September. I am no jock by any stretch of the imagination, but of all sports, I still love baseball.

Not the inconsistent way my wife loves baseball, when the ball is flying out of the park and the runs are coming in (chicks dig the long ball, they say). I can get excited about a pitcher’s duel or a close play at first base. Even the verdant glow of an empty park can have a magical feeling to it.
Fenway Park, 2006You might be surprised, then, to know that for my entire childhood, baseball did not love me back. (Then again, maybe not; I am a Red Sox fan, after all). Like most boys in my home town, I was involved in the West Bridgewater little league. Unlike most boys, I stank to high heaven for three solid years. Looking at the WBYAA web page, I can’t even find a mention of boys’ baseball beyond the T-ball age group, but back in the day, it was a big deal. I just couldn’t do it, though, and with my father heavily involved in the program, I couldn’t back out, either.

Looking back, I think part of my failing was visual — I didn’t get my first pair of glasses until I was much older, and I probably needed them. Being left handed didn’t help much, either — young pitchers habitually went inside on me, and in a typical season I might be hit by a pitch three or four different games. The true root cause, however, is probably a simple lack of talent:  I am a zero-tool player.

I’ve done the math, and based on the number of games in which I think I played, I probably have an on-base percentage of .032, the vast majority of which was due to my high HBP rating. In all my years of little league, I have one hit. One.

Gerry Remy once speculated that he can remember every major league home run he has ever hit because there are so few of them to remember. I feel the same way about my little league career. It was a high pitch, out of the strike zone, and I took a wild hack at it. Somehow, my bat connected, and the ball flew into right field. It may have been a double– my shock at having actually hit the ball has erased everything for me beyond that memory of the way that ball flew over the first baseman’s head. Based on that hit, I have calculated my lifetime batting average as .008, which has got to be some kind of YAA record.

In Ken Burn’s Documentary Baseball, Billy Crystal recalls telling the late great Ted Williams he had once seen him strike out. Williams, who has a .344 lifetime batting average, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Curveball,” he said. “Low and away.” Remy remembered his home runs. Williams remembered his strikeouts. I remember my hits.

 

Breaking Plymouth Rock

My family first came to America on the Mayflower, and died that first winter. At least, that’s the story as it was told to me. It’s hard to tell if the Turner who came to the Boston colony some time later and from whom I’m descended is any relationship to the merchant John Turner and his two sons, all of whom died in 1621. It may be true, and if so, I am content, but I still harbor suspicion that the whole story is a bill of goods sold to my family some sixty years past.

saints-and-strangersOf greater interest to me is the story of my great-grandfather Archie Turner, who, according legend, was part of a group of men who broke Plymouth Rock. As the story goes, the piece of Vermont granite known as Plymouth Rock was not always present in its current location. In fact, it was at that time in two locations, because only half of the stone had been hauled into public view. The other half remained buried near the shore.

When the time came that the Town of Plymouth wanted to give their beloved stone a new resting place, they decided to reunite the two pieces once again. They hired a man to do the job, and that man hired a young laborer named Turner to assist him.

Since the second piece of Plymouth Rock had been buried all those years, no one knew how big it was, which turned out to be a good thing, because it turned out to be too large and too unwieldy for the workmen to manage properly. Having hauled the boulder out of the earth, they proceeded to drop it in transit, and it broke.

Naturally, this is a reason for concern, because the locals held Plymouth Rock in high regard as the place their forefathers first set foot when founding the Plymouth Bay colony. Whether this legend were true or not was irrelevant — one does not simply break a town monument.

To cover up their failure, so they say, the group of workmen broke up the smaller of the two pieces of Plymouth Rock and carried them away. The larger piece was hauled to its new home and passed off as the whole thing, and the customer was none the wiser.

Evidence in favor of this story includes the fact that many pieces of Plymouth Rock turned up as souvenirs in the hands of locals after that time, and that the piece of rock delivered by the laborers didn’t quite mesh with the piece previously moved in the 1700s.  The dates, however, don’t quite seem to fit my family timeline, and it’s possible that this tale may just be an embellishment wrapped around some ill-defined bits of local history.

If my family is responsible for breaking Plymouth Rock, I must offer the people of Plymouth my humblest apologies. And if not, I probably should apologize for being part of a family of liars. Either way, I am sorry.

Note: Saints and Strangers by George F. Willison, shown above, is a dense but interesting history of the Plymouth Bay colony. If you enjoy reading history, pick it up. I found it a useful resource when researching the history of Plymouth Rock and Plymouth Bay Colony.

A Blank White Page

The following is a work of fiction. Dr. K does not exist, though there may be many worthy characters like her.

blank-white-pageDr. K wore a blouse that was cut too low, the first time I heard her speak, and the distraction annoyed me. I had come to hear her talk about character motivation, something I desperately needed for my novel, yet found when the lecture was done I had no notes on my page. Nor could I assuage my guilt with a hurried summary, for all I remembered was bounce of her hair as she turned her head, and the way she chewed her upper lip in thought, and the way her cleavage flashed at me as she bent forward to speak into the microphone.

Dr. K. didn’t need to do that. She was a beautiful woman, and like any beautiful woman she didn’t have to ask for attention. Trite phrases from a face that lovely would draw a crowd, with only the most jealous of listeners bothering to complain, and Dr. K was anything but trite. My writer’s journal was full of notes drawn from her blog, from the time when all I knew was her words, and not her face. If she were plain in person, perhaps I could have learned from her again.

She asked for questions, and a young man in the back thanked her for choosing an example he particularly liked, and she smiled. That was the payoff, her smile. For a beautiful woman to acknowledge your words, to accept them, was validation enough for a man to speak, and for her to smile in response was the ultimate gift. “Happy girls are the prettiest,” Audrey Hepburn said, and it was true.

But those were twentieth-century values, reducing her value to mere appearance. Dr. K. was more than that, and how she chose to dress shouldn’t matter, but it does. For all the women who say “eyes up here,” there are three more whose tight t-shirts inscribed in tiny fonts will call your eyes back down, then tell you it’s your fault for reading. We are not all alone in our responsibility, we men, but still the blank white page accuses me.

Do y’all have any Marlots?

Some time ago, I travelled to Venice, Italy, to work on the control system of a cruise ship being constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Mestre. While I was there, my customer, G, was asked to dinner by his customer, D. Since D was going to invite a “technical” member of his team (T) to the meal, G wanted to do likewise, to schmooze with him–and therein lay the problem.

During his time in Italy, T had established a reputation for being less than pleasant company. As a result, G’s technical people all demurred when invited to join the dinner, which led to him inviting me. I can schmooze, and I like to eat, so I agreed. I was then asked where we should go, and suggested Da Bepi’s, a nearby seafood restaurant that the team regularly enjoyed.

I see online that Da Bepi’s has mixed reviews, and to some degree, I understand. the two Da Bepi brothers who ran the place (mama stayed in the kitchen) ran the place like a traditional Italian home. You show up, you socialize, you eat what you are given, and you eat a lot. When asked for a menu during my first visit, they told us “you don’t need a menu–you just tell us how hungry you are.” If you want to be in control of your surroundings, Da Bepi’s was not the place for you–but the seafood was excellent.

The four of us arrived at about 7pm to find that the place was full, and we couldn’t get a seat. Apparently my customer, who was planning the event, hadn’t considered making a reservation. This was a problem, because a meal at Da Bepi’s often ran for hours. We weren’t getting a table there any time soon.

Fortunately, there was a third Da Bepi brother, the eldest, who had opened a restaurant of his own across town. The Da Bepi’s called their brother, made us a reservation, and sent us on our way. There is something truly beautiful about Italian hospitality.

The Da Bepi’s brother’s restaurant wasn’t quite as fancy a place, and the four of us sat in a booth for our meal. Still, we were happy to be there, and all went well until the waiter came to ask us for our wine order. T spoke first:

Do y’all have any Marlots?

The waiter was perplexed, and the Americans at the table weren’t faring much better, so T repeated himself. We still had no idea what he was asking. In all fairness, T was a Texan, and his thick drawl didn’t help things any. After a bit of discussion, we were finally able to discern that my customer’s customer wanted to order Merlot.

A French wine.

In Italy.

For the benefit of those who have never been to Italy, let me say simply that the Italian wines they send to the United States do not do them justice. From what I can tell, mediocre “house” wine in Italy is better than “good” wine over here. And it’s cheaper than Coca Cola.

There was no chance that the Da Bepis’ brother’s restaurant kept a stock of French wine for American idiots like us.

Our waiter called over the elder Da Bepi from his kitchen–a hulk of a man, looking somewhat like Luca Brasi from The Godfather–and we explained to him what T had requested. Da Bepi spoke to his waiter in Italian, too quickly for me to follow, and the waiter scurried off.

Because of my location at the end of the booth, I was the only one who could see that the waiter ran out the door and sprinted down the street. A few minutes later, we got our bottle of Merlot, which we drank.

Some time later, we asked for a second bottle, which we also drank. At this point Da Bepi showed up at our table again with a bottle of Chianti.

“This is from my own vineyard,” he said. “I want you to have it as a gift.”

Now, it is possible that Da Bepi was just being gracious with us–the other Da Bepi brothers would often open a bottle of their own wine to share with us when we ate with them–but I suspect a more complicated motive was at work.

Da Bepi had sent his waiter out of the restaurant–possibly to a wine shop, or more likely to his own wine cellar at home–from which he obtained the two bottles of Merlot we had enjoyed that night. But it was now 11pm, and the shops were all closed. There was no chance whatsoever that Da Bepi could get us another bottle of Merlot if we asked for it. So, acting preemptively, he gave us something better.

I later learned that Delta airlines had an article in its in-flight magazine about “the growing popularity of Merlot wines” that week, from which we inferred that T was trying to impress his boss. D was apparently none the wiser, and T’s reputation with the rest of us was confirmed.

For my own part, I’d still rather drink Chianti.

The Legend of Big Bill

Those who think larger-than-life American personalities are limited to the Old West have never lived in a small town in New England. When you live in a small town, you get to meet any number of fascinating characters.

Back in the 1930’s in my home town, Big Bill was one such character. At six-feet-plus of muscle and sinew, he could have stood toe to toe with any of our modern exercise freaks, but Bill was the town fire chief, and he earned his strength from hard work farming and fighting fires. I only knew him in later years, but he was still a hulk of a man, and strong.

When World War Two arrived, the Massachusetts state government decided that a well-trained populace was going to be vital to civil defense. To that end, they sent an official to every small town to teach them how to put out the phosphorus bombs the Nazis were using to such devastating effect in London and elsewhere.

This particular government man was no fool– he knew how small town influence worked. To teach these stubborn New England yankees anything, he would need a vivid example of his own superiority. And to do that, he used the town fire chief.

For his demonstration, the government man chose a gravel parking lot near the center of town, framed to the south by Town Hall and to the north by the local Catholic church. In this lot, he set up a small wood-frame building similar to an outhouse, and placed a phosphorus bomb within it. The whole town turned out to see the event.

The plan was simple. The government man would light the bomb, then ask the fire chief to put out the blaze. A single man on a fire hose would normally have to use the standard firefighting method of spraying water on the fire in a broad arc. This would fail, because you have to suffocate a phosphorus blaze to put it out. The government man would then step in, douse the fire with sand, and thereby teach everyone how to put out a phosphorus fire.  His mistake? Assuming that Big Bill used “standard” methods.

Bill may have been a small-town fireman, but he knew there was a firebomb in that outhouse, and he knew he had to put it out.  When challenged to put out the fire, he didn’t spray water on it at all.  He picked up that hose, held the nozzle within a few short inches of the bomb, and turned it on.  Full blast.

The phosphorus bomb was snuffed out like a candle.

The reason this isn’t a standard method, though, is the strength required.  A single man should not be able to hold a hose that steady with that volume of water flowing from it. An ordinary man couldn’t.  Big Bill was no ordinary man.

After a few moments of astonished silence, the government man recovered and explained what they had just seen.  “Unless you are as strong as your fire chief,” he said, “I recommend you use sand to put out a fire like this.”

By all accounts, the people listened.