Over the years, I have bought Kris a number of baseball-related books. Some have been peripherally baseball related, sorta like the movie For the Love of the Game is a baseball movie (for the record, it is not, it is a romance movie with baseball elements, it is not a baseball movie). Some were definitely baseball related.
This one, however, is the first baseball book Kris recommended back to me.
That's right, I bought baseball books for him, but hadn't actually read them.
So, on his recommendation, I read this one.
I didn't know Ankiel's story. In a few sentences: he was a baseball phenomenon, likely to be better than Sandy Koufax, who, depending on how your stats rank your pitchers, is considered the greatest pitcher of all time. Then he threw a wild pitch that got into his head, and he couldn't get it out. He tried, he failed, he left baseball, he came back a hitter and an outfielder instead. He had a good career.
This book is his autobiography of that career. Many parts of the book read like the inner dialog of a person talking with himself, trying to psych himself up, convince himself that he can do this next thing, that the last thing wasn't so bad.
A result of the style of inner chatter writing and not knowing Ankiel's story is that I was really confused in the first two chapters. of the book. By chapter five, Ankiel had written enough of his story that I understood the why of this book, and was engrossed in the story.
I really enjoyed this book. If you like biographies, baseball, or stories about the hero's journey, this I strongly recommend this book. It isn't one where the hero triumphs, but it is a tale of continuing to do the work, to try, to succeed in a different way, and, in the end, to accept that the life you have isn't the one you wanted, but it can still be a good one.
I would stand behind him when he needed a push, before him when he needed a shield, beside him when he did not.
Denise, my mom, wished she’d had the sense to leave Richard. Right then. The bruises generally healed while my father was away.
I understand this wish.
She couldn’t shake the notion that a boy should have a father nearby. She couldn’t not believe in having a family, even if it were all fouled up and volatile and hurtful.
Another problem was that Dad was a bully, and Mom, because she so wanted to believe the nightmare would end and didn’t want to be threatened again and also didn’t want to lie in a puddle of her own blood on the kitchen floor, was afraid. She had nowhere to go.
I was too small, and then I was too afraid, and even when I grew up there remained the notion that to challenge one’s father was to call out the whole universe into the middle of the street to decide who was the better man. And how long would that have lasted? A punch or two? And what would that have cost my mother in bruises?
An acquaintance of mine has this deep-seated belief that victims can alway speak, that they can always walk away or continue to fight. He never quite understands that sometimes the victim cannot do those things, because the victim understands the consequences of those actions can sometimes be worse than the abuse. My acquaintance does not understand that.a
My mother didn’t deserve the life she got, and I would not — could not — choose the same. I was going to chase something better. I was going to let myself dream and go after that.
Though I’d worn a facsimile of the uniform briefly the fall before, the first day in a real clubhouse — a spring training clubhouse, but still, surrounded by real major leaguers — buttoning that bright jersey and curling the brim of that new cap felt meaningful.
"... curling the brim ..." Hee!
The way to nine months of every single day was an hour at a time, a minute at a time even. Try not to look back. Definitely do not look forward, because the destination is tiny in the distance, and to chase that would be a reasonable path to exhaustion.
No, just hit the next mark in the routine. Do that, and when that is done the next mark will appear. Hit them all, and at the end of the day you’re fed and rested and healthy and strong and clear-headed and confident.
Miss one, then another, and that day gets wobbly, and the next is too full trying to cover for the previous one, and the next is messier, and this is how sore elbows and bad Aprils and doubt and stomachaches are born.
Your brain quit on you. Unless, and this was something to think about, your brain knew best, and it really was protecting you. You don’t want to throw this pitch, it’s not going to end well, so I won’t let you throw it.
It’s a spark of fear, of humiliation, of regret before the fact.
“The yips,” he said, “can be explained in both psychological and neuromuscular terms, and it’s extremely complicated. It’s very difficult to treat and very difficult to understand.… What it boils down to, a mistake is made, ultimate trust is eroded, pressure interferes with the lack of trust, and that compounds the problem. Now there’s anxiety, and a vicious cycle ensues.”
Along come the obsessive thoughts, Dr. Oakley said, the failure, the pursuit of perfection now fouled by anxiety and more failure and more anxiety. “This,” he added, “is a phenomenon on steroids.”
“When a person’s really distressed, they’re overwhelmed by that,” Dr. Oakley said.
“Turn it on its head. Instead of curtailing that moment, bring it on. Experience that. Spend more time with it.
“Most people, of course, don’t want to spend time with it. It’s not a pleasant thing. So what I do, and it goes along with treating anxiety disorders, I try prolonged exposure to it. You actually need more time with it, what my friend Ken Ravizza calls ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.’”
We knew that wouldn’t last forever, but twenty-one years old or even thirty-one years old hardly seemed a time to stop believing in tomorrow. Our arms were strong. Our hearts were set to the rhythms of the game. So we’d run our laps and take the ball and try to throw it past hitters. That was the plan.
In some ways, I told him, the Thing is not unlike cancer. A lot of people who get cancer did nothing to attract it. They are not flawed people. They did not abuse themselves. It’s not as though they stood too close to someone who already had cancer. So they, perhaps, can wonder why they were chosen, but they cannot blame themselves. “It’s not your fault,” I said, repeating a line I heard often.
Here's one of the things our the modern American culture: unfortunate random things happen to people and said people are blamed for being morally bankrupt and deserving the unfortunate random thing.
Which is, in reality, total bullshit.
In Lincoln's day, a clinically depressed person was supported by his community and had a chance to heal. Today, a clinically depressed person is thrown (likely non-effective) drugs and told to walk it off. Depression doesn't work that way. Sames as other random things like the yips. Or some cancers.
And if I couldn’t bury the monster, I would drown it. “Hey,” I said to Darryl Kile, “think you could get me a bottle of vodka?”
It was humiliating. He returned with a full bottle. Something cheap. No judgment. I shrugged. “Do what you gotta do, kid,” he said. “I understand.”
“Do what you have to do, Ank,” Harvey said, just like Darryl had said, maybe amused at the tactic and definitely concerned for the consequences. “Just know it’s not real.”
“Real,” I told Harvey, “and the rest of it is getting a little blurry right now. I have to pitch. This is how I can.”
“Ank,” he said, “it’s still there. You’re not winning. You’re stalling.”
I made three starts. They went like this: 4 1/ 3 innings, 3 hits, 17 walks, 12 wild pitches, a 20.77 ERA. That’s a lot to happen over 13 outs.
In rookie ball, yes. Against a bunch of kids whose best stories were about high school.
I have a couple friends like this.
But I also didn’t have to pretend I was fine when I wasn’t. I could walk around between starts and not feel the weight of the last start and the next start.
“Real” tasted better chased by Bud Lights. It slept better with Xanax. It looked better after one last round and a boozy promise that tomorrow would be happier.
Darryl had been good to me for no reason but to be good to me, and I wanted more than anything in that moment to be his teammate again.
I quit drinking, a special point for Harvey, who for years had seen me hose down bad days with alcohol — and sometimes pills — and celebrate good days with the same.
Harvey’s point, that I must feel the pain in order to treat the pain, was that I’d require clarity to cope with whatever came next. To beat whatever came next. Or, perhaps, to live with whatever came next.
Every ballpark could be a test of past failures and buried memories, some new way to summon the anxiety that was only too eager to return.
But I’d become pretty skilled at keeping the bad thoughts out, holding off what before had felt — and surely was — the inevitable wave of panic.
By then, I was less afraid. Not unafraid,
I liked dawn for the way I remembered it smelling, that being before the accident and the concussion, which jostled just enough in my head to kill my sense of smell. I was thirteen then, being towed on a skateboard behind a go-cart, an event that concluded predictably with a crash, a trip to the emergency room, and my being down one sense.
Dislike mornings. Understand the lack of the sense of smell.
I liked dawn because of its coolness, how it foretold — demanded, even — a fresh start, a ball’s-stuck-in-the-tree do-over.
“Today’s the day,” I said. “I’m going to do it.”
“OK, Ank. You go do it. We’ll talk later. You good?”
Ballplayers didn’t walk away. They were shoved, forcibly removed from the premises at the end of a cattle prod, railing against the injustices of age and declining skills and the idiots who decided who was too old and unskilled.
I. Can’t. Do. It. Anymore. Every word a hammer strike, loud and final. Each report echoing in my head as my old life vanished, my old dreams with it, dying of self-inflicted chaos.
I’d invited him out of obligation. I sat in a dark bus out of obligation. Those years were hard on him too, he said, and I listened out of obligation, for what I didn’t know. Maybe I was still hoping I was wrong about him, the evidence notwithstanding.
Obligation can be an ugly thing.
In this case, Ankiel tells it as this being a gift to his future wife, to try one more time. He tried, it didn't work out. Kudos to him for trying.
I don’t miss him. I miss the notion of a father, though.
[W]hen I rose to the top step to say thank you to those who were kind enough to remember me, I felt no pain. What I felt was strength. Power. Energy. The game was good again. And I was good at it again. My heart was smiling. And I wanted everyone to see.
"Yes, a very tough set of circumstances growing up, but not making excuses, not being a bum on the street, and here he is a father of two, so I love him. I just will never quit hoping that he had a good quality of life.’”
What happens to all of us. How a grown man who has performed a single act his entire life, an act that is so simple or has become so simple, finds that it becomes not simple and, beyond that, in a lot of ways, incapacitating.
[Harvey]’d tell me it wasn’t my fault. I was not responsible for who — more precisely, what — my father was, or what he’d done to my mother and me, or what I should have done about it.
What happened happened. Now what?
I’ve told my friends, “You ever find me hanging from the garage rafters, I was murdered.”
Harvey showed me how, sometimes simply by asking, “OK, what the fuck you gonna do about it?” Emphasis on the profanity, hard like that, as if to say, It’s a big-boy world out there, Ank, and bad stuff happens, and then you decide: I’m in or I’m out.
It’s what they called the guy who knew too well the doubts swimming in Domenick’s heart and head. Where they’d send him. How they’d probably never leave. But you fight. You find a way through it or around it. You ask for help. They send me in. And we go to breakfast.
We start there. So very few people actually got it. Fewer still knew how to help. And there was only one Harvey. We didn’t slay the monster together, but we stood shoulder to shoulder and tried. Then we bandaged up and got on our feet and tried again. Some days, we had our pick of monsters.
How many I’d told there was no trick to beating this thing, and hell, there might be no beating it at all, but there was no shame in trying. Trying was the only way to find out. Trying required courage. Trying meant allowing for failure. Trying was hard and lonely. So yeah, I recommended trying. I thought about Harvey. What would Harvey say? “Go on, Ank, what the fuck”? Or, maybe, “What’s the point, Ank? What do you have left to prove? Don’t do it for the money. Don’t do it for any reason except that you want to.”